Georgia Southern vs. Gophers

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

STRONGER START– The Gophers are used to falling behind in the first half and bouncing back with a big run. They’ve done it in six of the eight wins this season, including five times at Williams Arena. Most recently, New Jersey Institute of Technology took the lead late in the first half Tuesday before Minnesota was able to answer for a two-point halftime advantage. Allowing these midmajor schools to gain confidence early in games could end up biting the Gophers in the end. Georgia Southern nearly upset North Carolina State in an 81-79 loss on Nov. 11.

IKE AND TOOKIE SHOW– Georgia Southern’s Ike Smith is averaging 21.4 points, tops in the Sun Belt Conference entering Friday’s game. The 6-foot-4 guard was part of the third highest scoring freshmen duo in the country last season. Smith (11.7) and Tookie Brown (17.8) averaged nearly 30 points per game combined in 2015-16, but it's up to 36 points this season. Smith has taken over the top scoring role for the Eagles. But Brown has three 20-point games this year. Mike Hughes, an All-Sun Belt preseason last season, is now the third option. The Gophers have defended well against high-scoring mid-major guards this season. Texas-Arlington’s Erick Neal had just 12 points on 4-for-14 shooting. Mount St. Mary’s Junior Robinson had 16 points on 6-for-14 shooting. Southern Illinois’ Mike Rodriguez had nine points on 2-for-6 shooting. NJIT’s Damon Lynn had just 12 points on 5-for-24 shooting.

HOT SPRINGS– Senior guard Akeem Springs has been one of the most productive graduate transfers in the Big Ten this year. The former Milwaukee-Wisconsin standout is averaging 8.1 points this season, which includes a season-high 19 points Tuesday vs. NJIT. Only two Rutgers players, C.J. Gettys (9.2 ppg) and Nigel Johnson (12.1 ppg), are averaging more points per game than Springs among Big Ten grad transfers this year. Remember all that attention before the season about Springs starting? Well, Gettys and Indiana’s Josh Newkirk are the only two grad transfers starting in the Big Ten among a group of eight players.

GAME INFO

Time: 8 p.m. CT, Friday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Gophers by 13 points Series: First meeting. TV: BTN. Online/Live video: BTN. Radio: 107.1 FM.

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA (8-1)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G-Nate Mason 6-2 Jr. 12.8

G-Dupree McBrayer 6-5 So. 10.7

G-Amir Coffey 6-8 Fr. 13.8

F-Jordan Murphy 6-7 So. 9.9

C-Reggie Lynch 6-10 Jr. 8.2

Key reserves – Eric Curry, F/C, 6-9, Fr., 6.9 ppg; Akeem Springs, G, 6-4, Sr., 8.1 ppg; Ahmad Gilbert, F, 6-6, So., 2.6 ppg; Bakary Konate, C, 6-11, Jr., 2.6 ppg

Coach: Richard Pitino 60-51 (4 seasons)  

Notable: The Gophers are looking for their ninth win this season Friday against Georgia Southern. That would be one more victory than last season. It took Minnesota until Feb. 23 against Rutgers just to win eight games. Pitino’s team picked up its ninth victory on Dec. 19 against Seattle in 2014-15 and on Dec. 10 against South Dakota State in 2013-14. But this is already the program’s best start since going 12-1 in 2011-12.

GEORGIA SOUTHERN (4-4)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G-Tookie Brown 5-11 So. 14.9

G-Mike Hughes 6-3 Jr. 11.2

G-Ike Smith 6-4 So. 21.4

F-Shawn O’Connell 6-8 R-So. 6.3

F-Montae Glenn 6-8 So. 5.5

Key reserves – Jake Allsmiller, G, 6-5, Jr., 8.4 ppg; B.J. Gladden, F, 6-6, Jr., 7.8 ppg; Devonte Boykins, G, 6-2, Jr., 3.0 ppg; Coye Simmons, F, 6-8, Jr., 2.3 ppg.

Coach: Mark Byington 62-53 (5 seasons)  

Notable: The Eagles are vying for their first ever victory against a Big Ten opponent. This is their first meeting with Minnesota. But thy last played against the Big Ten in an 80-71 loss at Illinois in 2014. Florida Gulf Coast nearly upset Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich. this year (ended on that controversial clock operator error). Georgia Southern nearly defeated FGCU in an 85-82 loss Sunday at home.

Fuller’s prediction (9-0 record)Gophers 73, Georgia Southern 63. The Gophers have played at their best against the toughest teams on their home schedule such as Texas-Arlington, Arkansas and St. John’s. They seemed disinterested in games against lesser known opponents. They can’t afford to sleep walk against Georgia Southern, which has arguably the most explosive backcourt to play at the Barn so far this year. Smith and Brown combined for 46 points in a loss to North Carolina State. High-profile freshman Dennis Smith Jr. had just 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting in that game. Jordan Murphy, Reggie Lynch and Eric Curry need to dominate for Minnesota to pull this one out.