GOPHERS MEN'S HOOPS VS. RUTGERS

FULLER'S FOUR THINGS TO WATCH:

Changing of the guards

When the Gophers took a foreign tour to Italy two years ago, Richard Pitino's squad wasn't led in scoring by Marcus Carr or Daniel Oturu.

Carr and Oturu earned All-Big Ten honors last season, but it was Tre' Williams who stole the show that summer on the trip overseas for the team.

Fast forward to Saturday's home finale against Rutgers. Williams is ending his sophomore season displaying some of that potential he showcased when he first arrived on the U's campus.

In Wednesday's 84-65 loss at Penn State, the 6-5 Dallas native set career-highs in points (17), field goals (8), field goal attempts (14), rebounds (5) and minutes played (35).

"If I'm being honest, I think Tre's our most confident player," sophomore Isaiah Ihnen said. "He's just brimming with confidence."

The Gophers were undoubtedly Carr's team, but he might be passing the torch pursuing pro opportunities after this season. Williams could be one of the leaders in Minnesota's future backcourt. Pitino asked him to fill a bigger role with Gabe Kalscheur sidelined with a broken finger.

In the last six games, Williams is averaging 9.2 points with four double figure scoring performances. His emergence with freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr. has complemented Carr on the perimeter with Kalscheur and Both Gach (foot) dealing with lingering injuries.

"You can't lose confidence in yourself when you put a lot of work in," Williams said. "I knew I had to be one of the guys to step up. Confidence is never a question."

Frontcourt future

With 7-footer Liam Robbins out of the Gophers' lineup, Pitino had a completely different frontcourt to finish the regular season.

Robbins, who is out for the fourth straight game today vs. Rutgers with an ankle injury, will be the first Gophers player to lead the Big Ten in shot blocking (2.8) since Reggie Lynch in 2016-17.

A rim-protecting inside presence like Robbins isn't something easily replaced. The Gophers haven't been the same since the Drake transfer sprained his ankle in the second half of their last victory Feb. 11 vs. Purdue at home.

In the the last three losses, Pitino started senior Eric Curry in the middle, but he also rotated senior Brandon Johnson and sophomore Sam Freeman at center.

The lack of center depth became very clear without Robbins. But Freeman has gained some valuable experience after playing fewer than five minutes per game earlier in the season. Sophomore forward Isaiah Ihnen, who had 12 points at Penn State, has been getting more comfortable in the paint.

Curry said Friday he wouldn't play basketball after this season. He has been limited physically coming off injuries throughout his career, but Curry made some of his biggest contributions since his freshman season in 2016-17.

Rebounding margin

The Gophers are the worst team in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (minus-3.8), but that wasn't always the case this season.

Minnesota got after it on the glass to win the battle of the boards for three straight games vs. Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State earlier in the season. But that wasn't enough to overcome being outrebounded by Illinois twice (minus-18 and minus-10), Iowa twice (minus-17 and minus-6), Michigan twice (minus-9 and minus-4), Maryland (minus-8), Purdue (minus-17) on the road, Northwestern (minus-4), Nebraska (minus-2) and Penn State (minus-7).

During a three-game win streak in December, the Gophers made strides holding their own on the boards. They were barely outrebounded by Rutgers and Purdue (both minus-two), two of the most physical teams in the Big Ten in January. They grabbed 16 offensive boards vs. Rutgers in the first meeting and vs. Nebraska at home. And they followed that up with 13 offensive rebounds in their victory vs. Purdue at home.

Robbins, who had his third double-double this season with 11 points and 10 rebounds vs. Purdue at home, leads the Gophers (6.6) in rebounding this season. But this isn't like years past when Jordan Murphy (twice) and Daniel Oturu (last season) led the Big Ten in rebounding. They were good for 10-12 rebounds every night. It had to be more of a team effort this season.

Free-throw fancy

The Gophers currently rank No. 1 in the Big Ten and sixth nationally in free throws made per game overall (17.0), but that number dropped to 14.5 free throws made in Big Ten games. This season is still a major upgrade from last year when they ranked 285thnationally with 11.5 foul shots made per game. They're getting to the line nearly twice as often and converting 75 percent, ranked fourth in the Big Ten. Getting to the line is obviously a strength for Pitino's team. Getting outshot there has been detrimental. They were 5-14 when outshot by their opponent on free throws last season. They're 3-8 in the same situation this season.

Carr, who shoots 80% from the foul line, ranks second in the Big Ten with 141 free throws made this season trailing only Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis (143). Carr is 55-for-62 from the foul line (88.7%) in his last 10 games.

GAME INFO

Time: 11 a.m. CT, Saturday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Rutgers 3.0-point favorite. Series: Gophers lead the series 8-5, including 76-72 loss Feb. 4, 2021 at Rutgers. TV:Fox. Online/Live video:FOX WatchRadio: 100.3 KFAN

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (13-13, 6-13)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Marcus Carr 6-2 195 Jr. 20.1

G – Jamal Mashburn Jr. 6-2 175 Fr. 7.3

G – Tre' Williams 6-5 195 So. 5.0

F – Brandon Johnson 6-8 220 Sr. 8.7

F – Eric Curry 6-9 240 Sr. 3.8

Reserves– Both Gach, G, 6-6, Jr., 6.9 ppg; Isaiah Ihnen, F, 6-9, So., 2.7 ppg; Sam Freeman, C, 6-10, So., 1.0 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 158-135 (9th season overall)

Notable:That Gophers finished as the only team without a road win in the Big Ten at 0-10 this season. They have 12-game conference road losing streak dating back to last year's win at Northwestern … Curry, Johnson and walk-on Hunt Conroy will be honored today on Senior Day at Williams Arena. Both Conroy and Curry are likely to pursue graduate assistant coaching roles after this season. Johnson, a Western Michigan transfer, has hinted he would strongly consider the NCAA's option for athletes during the pandemic to return for an extra year of eligibility.

RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS (13-9, 9-10)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Geo Baker 6-4 195 Sr. 10.2

G – Paul Mulcahy 6-6 210 So. 5.8

G – Caleb McConnell 6-7 195 Jr. 5.5

F – Ron Harper Jr. 6-6 245 Jr. 15.5

C – Myles Johnson 6-11 255 Jr. 8.3

Key reserves– Clifford Omoruyi, F, 6-11, Fr., 4.2 ppg; Jacob Young, G, 6-2, Sr., 14.1 ppg; Montez Mathis, G, 6-4, Jr., 8.7 ppg.

Coach: Steve Pikiell 269-231 (16th season)

Notable:The Scarlet Knights are 0-5 all-time at Williams Arena, but they're hoping to stay in contention for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1991. Rutgers has lost three of the last four games, but it's looking for the season series sweep after beating Minnesota 76-72 on Feb. 4.Senior guard Geo Baker led his team with 16 points vs. Minnesota last month, but he was held to just four points in Monday's 72-51 loss at Nebraska,

Fuller's score prediction (Picks record 17-9): Rutgers 75, Gophers 71