GOPHERS MEN'S HOOPS VS. UMKC
FULLER'S FOUR THINGS TO WATCH:
Fans back at the Barn
Fans are back at Williams Arena. Fans are back at Williams Arena. It sounds so nice had to say it twice. For the first time since 2019-20, the Gophers are able to open the season with the home crowd in attendance Tuesday at the Barn.
The Gophers women's basketball team's opening 69-66 loss vs. Jacksonville was a tough way to begin the day for fans. The main event, though, will be Ben Johnson's head-coaching debut tonight with the Gophers men vs. Missouri Kansas City.
Johnson remembers when the Barn could be an electric atmosphere when he was a Gophers player and assistant: "I want to get that back."
The pandemic is still here. Masks are required for everyone inside of the building not part of the team, but it's getting closer to a normal college hoops environment around the country.
Even without fans last season, the Gophers started 11-0 at the Barn, including 7-0 in nonconference play.
Johnson, who coached the Gophers to an 80-67 win against Concordia-St. Paul in front of 9,470 fans, will play four of six games away from home after tonight. So he hopes his team can build an early homecourt advantage playing in front of fans this year.
"We're encouraging fans to come to as many games as you can," Johnson said. "It does matter. Our guys feed off the energy this place can provide. It's second to none. ... Whatever way we can do it to get that back. We have to do our part by playing good basketball."
The Gophers have won 31 straight regular season home openers since a 63-57 loss against Ball State in overtime in 1988-89. That was in Clem Haskins' third season, ending with the U reaching the Sweet 16.
When the Gophers were at their best in recent years, it was all about leadership helping to overcome adversity. Seniors Eric Curry and Payton Willis were named team captains on Monday, which wasn't surprising as the only players with Big Ten experience.
Johnson will need Curry and Willis to keep the Gophers upbeat and positive even through tough times in a rebuilding season. They both went through ups and downs at Minnesota under Richard Pitino.
Curry and Willis aren't alone, though. There are eight seniors on Johnson's roster, including projected starters E.J. Stephens and Luke Loewe, who are with Willis in the backcourt. Seniors Sean Sutherlin and Charlie Daniels will likely be the first players off the bench.
"Like I told the team, just because they're captains doesn't mean everyone else doesn't have a part of leadership," Johnson said. "Those are the guys who were chosen to carry the brunt of it, but everybody has to play a role .. it's going to be a full team, all-hands-on-deck leadership mentality."
In last year's 29-point win against UMKC, Drake transfer Liam Robbins had his first breakout game with the Gophers with 29 points, nine rebounds, and five blocks in front of an empty arena.
Robbins, who ranked second on the team with 11.7 points last season, led Minnesota in rebounds (6.6) and the Big Ten in blocks (2.7). After a slow start in Big Ten play, the 7-foot junior held his own against some of the top big men in the league. But he transferred to Vanderbilt.
Trying to replace Robbins' inside presence won't come from just one player. Curry and Stephen F. Austin transfer Charlie Daniels will rotate at center, but the Gophers will need help from 6-11 freshman Treyton Thompson and sophomore Jamison Battle.
The Gophers were the worst team in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (minus-3.6) last season. This isn't like years past when Jordan Murphy (twice) and Daniel Oturu (2019-20) led the Big Ten in rebounding and were all-league big men. Johnson will have a post-production-by-committee approach.
Curry and company will be tested immediately Tuesday night against UMKC's Josiah Allick. The 6-8 junior was named to the All-Summit League preseason team after averaging 15 points and six rebounds last season.
The Gophers shot a program-low 28.4% from three last season but were 46th nationally and second in the Big Ten with 25.2 attempts per game. They finished third in team history with 730 three-point attempts. Something seems off, right.
As much as Pitino talked about not wanting his players to shoot as many three-pointers, they let them fly with reckless abandon. Johnson won't know how good his team is from beyond the arc until they prove one way or the other.
Battle (24 points) and Willis (23 points) combined for seven threes in the 80-67 exhibition victory over Concordia (St. Paul) on Nov. 1. The Gophers shooting 11-for-29 (37.9%) from three in the game against a Division II opponent wasn't as impressive as four different players hitting at least two from long range, including Stephens and Loewe.
Time: 7 p.m. CT, Tuesday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Gophers seven-point favorite. Series: Gophers lead the series 3-0, including 90-61 win Dec. 10, 2020 at Williams Arena. TV: None. Online/Live video: BTN-Plus Radio: 100.3 KFAN
MINNESOTA GOPHERS (0-0)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Payton Willis 6-4 195 Sr.
G – E.J. Stephens 6-3 190 Sr.
G – Luke Loewe 6-4 190 Sr.
F – Jamison Battle 6-7 225 So.
F – Eric Curry 6-9 245 Sr.
Reserves– Sean Sutherlin, G/F, 6-5, Sr; Charlie Daniels, C/F, 6-9, Sr; Abdoulaye Thiam, G, 6-3, Fr; Treyton Thompson, F/C, 6-11, Fr; Danny Ogele, F, 6-7, Sr.
Coach: Ben Johnson 0-0 (1st season)
Notable: The Gophers also played UMKC to open the 2015-16 season. The result was a 76-58 victory in Pitino's third season, which started 2-0. But it ended up being the worst year in program history with an 8-22 record … In his last game at the Barn, Curry was honored with Brandon Johnson and walk-on Hunt Conroy on Senior Day. Curry was hoping to pursue a graduate assistant coaching role after this season, but he was convinced to play a sixth season. And now he's the starting center for the Gophers, who are as thin in the frontcourt as any Big Ten team ... Junior forwards Parker Fox (Northern State transfer) and Isaiah Ihnen are sidelined after offseason knee surgeries. Fox, who tore his ACL and MCL in the spring, is on pace to be recovered in January.
MISSOURI KANSAS CITY ROOS (0-0)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Evan Gilyard 5-10 170 Sr.
G – Marvin Nesbitt Jr. 6-4 180 Sr.
F – Arkel Lamar 6-5 235 Sr.
F – Josiah Allick 6-8 225 Jr.
C – Hidde Roessink 6-10 220 Jr.
Key reserves – Jacob Johnson, G, 6-5, So; Caden Boser, F, 6-8, So; Anderson Kopp, G, 6-5, So; Paxton Payne, G, 6-2, So; Sam Martin, G, 6-0, So.
Coach: Billy Donlon 27-27 (3rd season)
Notable: The Roos have Big Ten and even Minnesota ties in their program. Donlon, a former Wright State coach, was an assistant at Michigan under John Beilein and at Northwestern under Chris Collins … Anderson Kopp transferred from Lamar, but his brother transferred from Northwestern to Indiana. Jacob Johnson, who averaged 5.2 points last season as a redshirt freshman, was an all-conference player at Champlin Park as a senior in 2019 … UMKC will return to the Twin Cities this season to play at St. Thomas on Jan. 8 as part of Summit League play. The Tommies, new to Division I this season, play at the Roos on Feb. 3.
Fuller's score prediction (Picks record last season 20-9): Gophers 75, UMKC 67