GOPHERS MEN'S HOOPS VS. MISSISSIPPI STATE
FULLER'S FOUR THINGS TO WATCH:
The Gophers will face their toughest test in the paint so far this season Sunday afternoon with Mississippi State's 6-11 junior Tolu Smith, one of the top centers in the SEC.
Smith, who won a state title in Hawaii as a senior in high school, started his career at Western Kentucky. But he eventually returned to his home state to help give the Bulldogs the inside presence they were missing.
North Carolina transfer Garrison Brooks and Memphis transfer D.J. Jeffries added depth to Ben Howland's frontcourt this year. But it wasn't complete until Smith returned from a foot injury to pick up where he left off last season. He's averaging 15.3 points and 9.7 rebounds in three games, which includes two double-doubles.
As tough and physical as any low post threat the Gophers will see in the Big Ten, Smith's an old fashioned back-to-the-basket big man with no three-point field goals attempted in his career.
His 22-point, 11-rebound performance to beat Richmond in overtime in the Bahamas came on 10-for-11 shooting last month. He also had a career-high 27 points and 14 rebound in a win against Florida last year.
Gophers co-captain Eric Curry, who has been the healthiest of his injury-plagued career, will have to use his 6-9, 245-pound frame to keep Smith off the block. Curry's playing the best basketball since his freshman year. The 6-9 senior is averaging career-highs in points (6.8), rebounds (6.5), assists (1.7), blocks (1.2), and minutes (28.2).
"[Their game at Pittsburgh] was a hard-fought game and a very physical game," Howland said. "I thought Curry was very physical inside, and I was impressed with him."
Curry was in foul trouble, though, struggling to slow down Pittsburgh center John Hugley, who finished with 15 of his 25 points in the second half Tuesday. Backup senior forward Charlie Daniels picked up four fouls as well, so the Gophers went deeper into their bench with Division II transfer Danny Ogele.
With 7-footer Liam Robbins transferring to Vanderbilt, the only player taller than 6-9 on the Gophers' roster is the 6-11 freshman Treyton Thompson, but he has only played five minutes combined this year.
No team in college basketball plays its bench fewer minutes than the Gophers, who rank 358th in the country in bench minutes percentage (15.2%), per Kenpom.com.
First-year coach Ben Johnson just doesn't trust many players beyond his seven-man rotation, which consists of six seniors and sophomore leading scorer Jamison Battle.
Starters Payton Willis, Luke Loewe, E.J. Stephens, Battle, and Curry are all among the Big Ten leaders in minutes played this season.
"Minnesota has a very experienced team," Howland said. "Their starting lineup has four guys who are all in their fifth year of college. They really know how to play and really understand tempo. They're playing seven guys. Because of that, they're going to be very patient in their offense. The biggest challenge to me is being patient defensively. Secondly, within that, is making sure that we're right on top of Willis and Battle – two guys who are top 10 scorers in the Big Ten."
Sean Sutherlin has played himself into almost a sixth starter role, averaging 9.2 points and 4.3 rebounds in 19.6 minutes off the bench. Daniels is the only other reserve averaging double figures in minutes (11.2), but he's struggled to make an impact. The 6-9 graduate transfer has more fouls (9) than points and rebounds combined (8) in his last three games.
Last season, the Gophers were 5-12 when outrebounded by their opponent, but they're 3-0 in the same situation this season.
Having the rebounding advantage hasn't been the deciding factor against the Gophers this season. In fact, crashing the boards worked in their favor with senior guard Luke Loewe's put-back shot with 2.4 seconds left in the 54-53 win at Pittsburgh.
Minnesota ranks second to last in the country entering Sunday at 357th in offensive rebounding percentage (15.8), per Kenpom.com. Johnson prefers his players to hustle back to guard in transition and set their half-court defense, but not on the final play Tuesday night.
As much as the Gophers pick and choose when to attack the offensive glass they take pride in defensive rebounding, ranked third in the Big Ten (30.2). But they still are 13th in rebounding margin (minus-3.3).
On the other side, Mississippi State's one of the SEC's best rebounding teams. The Bulldogs are second in rebounding margin (plus-12.6), second in offensive rebounding percentage (37.6%), and second in defensive rebounding percentage (77.5%).
"We try and win the glass against every opponent we play," Howland said. "This is a Big Ten team that also shoots a lot of threes. There are going to be a lot of long rebounds that we're going to have to box out for because they do a good job attacking the glass themselves."
Free throw factor
The Gophers are last in the Big Ten and 242nd nationally in free throws made per game (10.8) this season, but that hasn't come back to bite them yet.
It helped that several of their opponents have averaged even fewer free throws made. Princeton (10.1), Jacksonville (8.3), and UMKC (7.8) have all barely got to the foul line this year.
In a 55-44 win against Jacksonville last week, the Gophers barely got to the line at 5-for-6 shooting. But the Dolphins went just 5-for-8 on free throws.
On Tuesday, Johnson's team only went 3-for-5 from the foul line, which was the fewest in a game since the 2014-15 season.
Time: 1 p.m. CT, Sunday. Where: Humphrey Coliseum. Line: Mississippi State 9-point favorite. Series: First game in the series. TV: ESPNU. Online/Live video: WatchESPN. Radio: 100.3 KFAN
MINNESOTA GOPHERS (6-0)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Payton Willis 6-4 195 Sr. 16.3
G – E.J. Stephens 6-3 190 Sr. 11.0
G – Luke Loewe 6-4 190 Sr. 6.2
F – Jamison Battle 6-7 225 So. 17.5
F – Eric Curry 6-9 245 Sr. 6.8
Key reserves– Sean Sutherlin, G/F, 6-5, Sr., 9.2 ppg; Charlie Daniels, C/F, 6-9, Sr., 1.5 ppg.
Coach: Ben Johnson 6-0 (1st season)
Notable: The Gophers shot a program-low 28.4% from three last season, but they've made a significant jump to 35% this season through six games. They're even better at three-point defense holding opponents to 21.2% shooting, which ranks first in Division I … Sutherlin led the Gophers with 19 points on 7-for-7 shooting from the field and seven rebounds in the Nov. 19 win against Purdue Fort Wayne. The New Brighton, Minn., native scored the most points (44) combined in consecutive games off the bench since former Gophers guard Isaiah Washington during the 2017-18 season … Junior forwards Parker Fox (Northern State transfer) and Isaiah Ihnen are sidelined indefinitely after offseason knee surgery. Fox, who tore his ACL and MCL in late March, could possibly make a full recovery by January.
Mississippi State Bulldogs (6-1)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Iverson Molinar 6-3 190 Jr. 16.0
G – Shakeel Moore 6-1 185 So. 11.3
F – D.J. Jeffries 6-7 215 Jr. 9.6
F – Garrison Brooks 6-9 230 Sr. 10.7
C – Tolu Smith 6-11 245 Jr. 15.3
Reserves – Rocket Watts, G, 6-2, Jr., 3.8 ppg; Javian Davis, F, 6-9, Jr., 4.0 ppg; Cameron Matthews, G, 6-7, So., 5.3 ppg; Cam Carter, G, 6-3, Fr., 3.2 ppg; Anderson Garcia, F, 6-7, So., 4.2 ppg; Derek Fountain, F, 6-9, So., 2.2 ppg.
Coach: Ben Howland 506-289 (26th season)
Notable: The Bulldogs were scheduled to host the Gophers last December as the first part of a home-and-home series, but the game was postponed until this year due to COVID-19. They are expected to play at Williams Arena during the 2022-23 season. Their first loss this season came 72-58 to Louisville in the Bahamas on Nov. 25, but the Bulldogs bounced back with a 75-60 win against Lamar behind 14 points and 11 rebounds from Smith. ... Iverson Molinar, an All-SEC preseason pick, leads the team with 16 points per game. But Michigan State transfer Rocket Watts scored a season-high 15 points in win against Lamar.
Fuller's score prediction (Picks record 5-1): Mississippi State 77, Gophers 70.