Harvard at GOPHERS
Three things to watch:
FOUR-STAR TALENT – How many Ivy League teams have ever had four top-100 recruits and a top-10 ranked recruiting class nationally? The answer is none. That’s right, Harvard was the first in its league to ever accomplish such a fete with Tommy Amaker’s 2016 recruiting class, which included four-star prospects Chris Lewis (No. 68 in ESPN100), Robert Baker (No. 97), Seth Towns (No. 98) and Bryce Aiken (No. 99). In comparison, the Gophers have only two former top 100 recruits on the roster with Amir Coffey (No. 32) and Isaiah Washington (No. 68), according to ESPN’s rankings. So why is such a talented team like the Crimson struggling with a 5-7 record this season? They’re young (ranked 340th among 351 Division I teams in experience this year). Amaker has four sophomores in his starting lineup, including Aiken (17.6 ppg and 3.3 apg), Towns (12.6 ppg and 5.1 rpg) and Lewis (11.9 ppg and 5.3 rpg). Off the bench, Harvard plays two freshmen and three sophomores.
BACK FROM INJURY – The Gophers are hoping senior point guard Nate Mason is back from an ankle injury after missing the second half of last week’s win against Florida Atlantic. Junior guard Dupree McBrayer also is expected to return after being out the last two games with a lower left leg injury (stress reaction). Mason and McBrayer have a combined 25 starts this season and 129 for their career. Getting both players back from injury before Big Ten play starts next week would be a big plus. Harvard’s leading scorer Aiken missed the last two games with a knee injury. The 6-foot guard’s last game was when he had 15 points in 38 minutes Dec. 6 in a win at Fordham. Aiken has been listed as day-to-day for the last two weeks. If Mason and Aiken face off Saturday, it could be a battle between the two best point guards in the Big Ten and Ivy League, respectively.
BENCH PLAY – In the last two games, the Gophers have outscored their opponents bench 50-15. Before that point, they had only outscored the opposing bench twice the entire season. Minnesota accomplished that even with sophomore Michael Hurt going from key reserve to starter the last two games. Hurt scored a combined 18 points in his first two career starts in wins against Oral Roberts and Florida Atlantic. If he goes back to the bench Saturday, that will only strengthen the Gophers’ depth. Freshmen Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris are still grasping Richard Pitino’s system, but they’re making fewer mistakes on the floor. Davonte Fitzgerald and Bakary Konate are offensively challenged, but they can make up for it with adequate rebounding and defense. Harvard is the only team in the nation with 16 different players having started games this season. Amaker will use his bench quite often with 10 players averaging at least 10 minutes per game.
Time: 1 p.m. CT, Saturday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Minnesota by 13.5 points. Series: First meeting. TV: Big Ten Network Online/Live video: BTN Plus Radio: 100.3 FM and 1130 AM
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Nate Mason 6-2 Sr. 15.5
G – Amir Coffey 6-8 So. 14.1
F – Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Jr. 8.2
F – Jordan Murphy 6-7 Jr. 19.6
C – Reggie Lynch 6-10 Sr. 10.3
Key reserves– Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, Fr., 7.8 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, So., 3.0 ppg; Davonte Fitzgerald, F, 6-8, Jr., 3.0 ppg; Bakary Konate, C, 6-11, Sr., 1.3 ppg; Jamir Harris, G, 6-1, Fr., 3.7 ppg; Gaston Diedhiou, F/C, 6-10, Sr., 2.8 ppg.
Coach: Richard Pitino 104-78 (6th season)
Notable: Junior Jordan Murphy has streak of 14 straight games with a double-double, which is the longest to start a college basketball season since former Wake Forest and San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan had 17 straight in 1996-97. That’s fitting since Murphy grew up idolizing Duncan living in the San Antonio area. His mother also was a huge Duncan fan since they both were raised in the Virgin Islands.
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Bryce Aiken 6-0 So. 17.6
G – Justin Bassey 6-5 So. 4.5
G – Corey Johnson 6-5 Jr. 5.5
F – Seth Towns 6-7 So. 12.6
F – Chris Lewis 6-9 So. 11.9
Key reserves– Weisner Perez, F, 6-6, Jr., 5.3 ppg; Danilo Djuricic, F, 6-8, Fr., 5.8 ppg; Robert Baker, C, 6-11, So., 4.1 ppg; Rio Haskett, G, 6-3, Fr., 3.6 ppg; Christian Juzang, G, 6-2, So., 2.0 ppg; Henry Welsh, C, 6-10, So., 1.6 ppg.
Coach: Tommy Amaker 374-251 (21st season)
Notable: Aiken was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year after averaging 14.5 points per game last season, the highest scoring average for a Harvard freshman since 1987-88. Aiken joined former Hopkins standout Siyani Chambers as the only Harvard freshmen to be named All-Ivy League first team in school history. Chambers played for the Crimson from 2012-17 … Amaker’s last season coaching in the Big Ten was when Michigan finished 22-13 and 8-8 in the conference in 2006-07. The Wolverines defeated the Gophers and interim coach Jim Molinari three times that season, including in the Big Ten tournament opening round to drop Minnesota’s record to 9-22 to finish the year.
Fuller’s prediction (12-2 picks record): Gophers 76, Harvard 66. Amaker built Harvard into a perennial Ivy League power and NCAA tournament team with four straight appearances to the Big Dance from 2011-15. But the Crimson have struggled to get back to that level the last few seasons. Two years ago, Harvard went 14-16, the first losing season since Year 1 under Amaker. He improved to win 18 games last season, but the 5-7 start this year has been disappointing. The Gophers might not be facing the type of Harvard team that pulled off NCAA tourney upsets in past years (beat No. 5 seed Cincinnati in 2014). But Pitino can’t afford to have his players overlook the Crimson to Big Ten play next week. The Crimson won’t be intimidated after hanging with Kentucky on the road in a 79-70 loss Dec. 2. But if the Gophers take this game seriously and play well, they'll take a four-game winning streak into Wednesday's Big Ten game against Illinois.