Dupree McBrayer had a little hitch in his gait as went through the layup line for the Gophers before Sunday’s Big Ten opener against Rutgers.
The 6-5, 195-pound junior guard returned from missing a game because of a right leg infection that caused him to be hospitalized and lose nearly 20 pounds, but there he was, back with teammates with his leg heavily wrapped.
McBrayer seemed less than 100 percent, but his coach and his teammates didn’t want to play another game without him.
“It was good to get back in that flow with Dupree in there,” coach Richard Pitino said. “I just thought we were better all-around defensively, more connected and just felt more comfortable.”
With the second of two early Big Ten games Tuesday at Nebraska, the Gophers (8-1) are glad to be at full strength again. McBrayer’s absence contributed to their first loss of the season, 86-81 to No. 10 Miami (Fla.) at home Wednesday, a loss that dropped Minnesota two spots to No. 14 in the Associated Press poll Monday.
The biggest difference for the Gophers with McBrayer and without him is chemistry — both offensively and defensively. The Hurricanes are one of the best defensive teams in the country, and senior guard Nate Mason didn’t look comfortable moving off the ball while freshman Isaiah Washington took his place at point guard.
Mason moved back to his normal role Sunday and bounced back with a season-best 26 points and seven assists in the 89-67 victory over Rutgers. McBrayer, who averages 9.0 points and 3.6 assists, had seven points on 3-for-11 shooting, four assists, two steals and two blocks in 25 minutes.
“He missed a couple shots he usually makes,” Mason said of McBrayer. “It’ll just come with time, getting back into shape and getting healthy. But it felt pretty good. You could see the chemistry was really there. We play off each other really well. And we’re connected defensively more than anything. He helped us in that part.”
Mason, McBrayer, Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy and Reggie Lynch had started every game for the Gophers during a 7-0 start, which included victories over Providence and Alabama. All five were returning starters for last season’s NCAA tournament team.
So in the biggest early test of the season against Miami, it was blow for the Gophers to lose their glue guy only days before the game. The pain in McBrayer’s leg caused him to miss practice following the Gophers’ Nov. 25 victory over Alabama in New York. He was sent to the hospital to receive medication and didn’t attend the loss to the Hurricanes at Williams Arena.
“It was tough because he was in the hospital getting medicine and [intravenous fluids], the whole deal,” Pitino said. “We caught it early so hopefully he’ll be fine the rest of the way.”
Washington’s play was uneven against Miami, and more than anything showed the Gophers how much they need to share the ball and communicate defensively. Against Rutgers, the Gophers had 23 assists (compared to 13 vs. Miami) and held their opponent to 32 percent shooting (Miami shot 51 percent).
Pitino said McBrayer completes Minnesota’s best lineup.
“When you say chemistry, it sounds like the other guys aren’t getting along,” he said. “That’s not what I mean. I just think they’re comfortable playing with each other. It’s going to take time for Isaiah and [freshman guard] Jamir [Harris] to get incorporated and feel good with each other.”