GOPHERS MEN'S HOOPS AT WISCONSIN
Time: 3:30 p.m. CT, Thursday.Where: Kohl Center. Line: Minnesota 8.5-point underdogs.
Series: Wisconsin and Minnesota are tied in the series 98-98, including the 71-69 Gophers loss in Madison on March 1.
TV: Big Ten Network.Online/Live video: BTN-Plus.Radio: 100.3 KFAN.
FOUR THINGS TO WATCH
Nine Minnesotans will be part of Thursday's border battle matchup between the Gophers and Badgers at the Kohl Center. Seven of them are on Wisconsin's roster, including seniors Brad Davison and Nate Reuvers possibly playing the last game against their home state program. There's only one scheduled meeting between both programs in the regular season for the first time since 2017-18. Davison and Reuvers lead the Badgers with 103 and 90 career starts, respectively. There's certainly no love for Davison when it comes to Minnesota fans questioning some of his antics against the Gophers over the years. But the Maple Grove native averaged 11.4 points in five games against Minnesota, including a team-high 20 points in Wisconsin's win in Madison last season. Reuvers, a Lakeville native, had 14 points in Wisconsin's 70-52 loss in Minneapolis last season. But he's scored under double figures in five of the last six games this year, including eight points on 4-for-10 shooting in Wisconsin's 70-64 home loss Monday against Maryland. The Badgers rely on sophomore Tyler Wahl (Lakeville) as a spark off the bench. Freshmen posts Ben Carlson (East Ridge) and Steven Crowl (Eastview) have not played in the Big Ten.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino has gotten criticized for his inconsistency in recruiting in-state talent, but he has two Minnesota players on his current roster in junior starting guards Both Gach (Austin) and Gabe Kalscheur (DeLaSalle). Gach, a Utah transfer, is second on the team in scoring (11.7 points) and assists (3.5), but he's averaging just 6.3 points on 7-for-30 shooting in his last four games. Kalscheur's the team's top perimeter defender and co-captain with leading scorer Marcus Carr, but he's still trying to snap out of a three-point shooting slump this season (from 41 percent as a freshman to 18.8). Sophomore forward Jarvis Omersa (Orono) was the team's most athletic player and emotional leader, but he decided to opt out the rest of the season with the Gophers a couple weeks ago for concerns over COVID-19.
The Gophers are figuring out they can go through the post at times with 7-footer Liam Robbins much like they did Daniel Oturu last season. Oturu, who is now playing in the NBA with the Los Angeles Clippers, was a game-changer offensively last year averaging 20 points for Pitino, who isn't asking Robbins to lead the team in scoring. But the Gophers did capitalize on their size advantage in the middle against Michigan State in Monday's 81-56 victory at home. Robbins got the ball early and often as he finished with 12 of his 18 points in the first half. Robbins, who has scored in double figures in six straight games, has been battle tested against Big Ten centers having faced arguably the league's two best players at the position in Illinois' 7-footer Kofi Cockburn (33 points and 13 rebounds) and Iowa's Luka Garza (32 points and 17 rebounds). Robbins getting into early foul trouble made it impossible to keep Cockburn and Garza in check. He'll face two of the top big men in the league on Thursday with Reuvers (Wisconsin's all-time leader with 159 career blocks) and senior Micah Potter, who is on the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Watch list like Robbins. You can bet the Badgers will focus on getting their inside presence established early against the Gophers after struggling in the post against Maryland. Wisconsin got outscored 38-20 in the paint, while Reuvers and Potter combined for just 12 points on 6-for-18 shooting and zero free throws.
"We've got to adjust on the fly and pretty much stick to our schemes and touch the paint," said senior forward Aleem Ford, who had 10 points. "We got away from that and got a little three-happy."
The Gophers rely on seniors Eric Curry and Brandon Johnson and sophomore Isaiah Ihnen to give Robbins support in the frontcourt. Curry and Johnson combined for 15 points and 11 rebounds vs. Michigan State, which helped Minnesota outscore the Spartans 40-16 in the paint Monday.
The Gophers are last in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (minus-1.4), but they won the battle of the boards against Michigan State 52-36. That was the first time the Spartans were outrebounded this season. It was a significant jump after Illinois (plus-18) and Iowa (plus-17) dominated Minnesota on the glass in their two previous Big Ten games. Robbins leads the Gophers (6.8) in rebounding this season, but he hasn't cracked double figures in rebounding yet. That distinction belongs to Ihnen, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds vs. St. Louis. Gach grabbed nine rebounds vs. the Spartans. At 6-6, he's one of the top rebounding guards (6.3) in the Big Ten and ranks second on the team. The Badgers rank 10th in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (plus-2.6).
"I think we've always had the capability to be a good rebounding team," Robbins said. "Anyone who knows Michigan State knows that they're a team that likes to crash the offensive glass in transition, so we knew it was important to end the possession so that we could get in transition and start our offense."
The Gophers made 34 free throws against UMKC and St. Louis this year, which was the third most made free throws for any Division I team in regulation at the time. They currently rank No. 1 in the Big Ten and nationally in free throws made per game (22.7) this year. It's a drastic improvement from last season when Minnesota ranked 285th nationally with 11.5 foul shots made per game. In the five early losses in November and early December last year, the Gophers shot just 57.8 percent at the foul line, but they also scored only 9.6 points a game on free throws. Now they're getting to the line twice as much and converting 75.7 percent, ranked fourth in the Big Ten. Getting to the line is obviously a strength for Pitino's team. But getting outshot at the line isn't as detrimental as it was last year. They had a 5-14 record when outshot by their opponent on free throws last season. But they're 2-0 in the same situation this season in the last two wins vs. Iowa and Michigan State. Carr is tied with Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis for the most free throws made per game (6.3) in the Big Ten this season.
NO. 21 MINNESOTA GOPHERS(9-1, 2-1)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Marcus Carr 6-2 195 Jr.24.0
G – Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 200 Jr. 9.3
G – Both Gach 6-6 185 Jr. 11.7
F – Brandon Johnson 6-8 220 Sr. 8.6
C – Liam Robbins 7-0 235 Jr. 13.1
Key reserves– Eric Curry, F-C, 6-9, Sr., 4.7 ppg; Jamal Mashburn Jr., G, 6-2, Fr., 4.7 ppg; Isaiah Ihnen, F, 6-9, So., 3.1 ppg; Tre' Williams, G, 6-5, So., 3.8 ppg; Sam Freeman, C, 6-10, So., 1.2 ppg.
Coach:Richard Pitino 154-123 (9th season overall)
Notable: In the Nov. 25 opener against Green Bay, Gophers redshirt senior big man Eric Curry played his first game since the 2018-19 season. Curry, who is averaging 4.7 points and 2.3 rebounds in nearly 14 minutes per game, bounced back from his second major knee injury after missing last season following a torn right anterior cruciate ligament in preseason practice. The 6-foot-9 Memphis native is the last remaining scholarship player from the U's first NCAA tournament team under Pitino in 2017. Senior forward Brandon Johnson missed the Dec. 10 win vs. UMKC with a left ankle injury, but he returned the next game at Illinois in the Big Ten opener. The Chicago native's breakout performance came soon after with a season-high 26 points on 8-for-9 shooting from three in the 102-95 overtime win vs. Iowa. His three-point percentage in a game was a school record.
NO. 6 WISCONSIN BADGERS (8-2, 2-1)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – D'Mitrik Trice 6-0 184 Sr. 14.2
G – Brad Davison 6-4 202 Sr. 10.6
F – Aleem Ford 6-8 217 Sr. 9.6
F – Nate Reuvers 6-11 235 Sr. 10.3
F – Micah Potter 6-10 248 Sr. 12.2
Key reserves– Jonathan Davis, G, 6-5, Fr., 7.4 ppg; Tyler Wahl, F, 6-9, So., 4.4 ppg; Trevor Anderson, G, 6-3, Sr., 4.3 ppg.
Coach: Greg Gard 109-58 (6th season)
Notable:The Badgers saw their 10-game conference win streak snapped in a 70-64 loss against Maryland at the Kohl Center. A 15-game home win streak also came to an end dating back to last season. Wisconsin's only other loss this season was on a buzzer-beater 67-65 at Marquette on Dec. 4 … Wisconsin is 17-2 vs. the Gophers at the Kohl Center with the losses in 2009 and 2019 … Badgers senior Micah Potter and Gophers' junior Marcus Carr were high school teammates at Montverde Academy in Florida in 2015-16.
Fuller's score prediction (Picks record 7-3):Gophers 65, Wisconsin 61.