GOPHERS vs. Rutgers
JELLY RETURNS — Remember when the backcourt tandem of Nate Mason and Isaiah Washington was potentially going to take over the Big Ten. Well, at least if you talked to Washington it was. The first time the high-profile freshman was in the starting lineup earlier this season, it was an experiment gone wrong with Washington and Mason combining to shoot 11-for-30 in a loss to Miami (Fla.) on Nov. 29 (Washington was much worse shooting 6-for-17). That was the eighth game of the season. Washington played just 14 combined minutes during the Gophers’ three-game east coast road trip, which included losing to Ohio State 67-49 in their last appearance at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 20. In front of his home state crowd, Washington went scoreless in only five minutes vs. the Buckeyes. Speculation started that Mr. Jelly Fam wasn’t happy getting benched, but Pitino eventually gave him more playing time after saying Washington learned his lesson with better practice habits. Mason and Washington had their best game together with a combined 48 points in a 76-73 overtime loss at Michigan on Feb. 3. Washington didn’t start that game, but he scored 26 points in 32 minutes playing alongside Mason and fellow New York native Dupree McBrayer. Washington had three starts this season and went through some growing pains. But the Harlem native is averaging 12.1 points, 3.3 assists, 2.8 rebounds, shooting 44.2 percent from the field, 33 percent from three and 88.2 percent from the foul line in his last eight games. Wednesday could be the last time Washington plays in New York City if the Gophers lose. The Big Ten tournament won't return to MSG anytime soon after this year. That's probably why Mr. Jelly Fam asked his 530,000 Instragram followers to come out and support his team against Rutgers. Who will be louder: Jelly Fam fans or Scarlet Knight faithful?
OFFENSIVE BOARDS — Everyone knows after scouting Rutgers that you’re in trouble if you can’t box out on the defensive end. The Scarlet Knights rank No. 1 in the Big Ten and 13th in the country in offensive boards per game (13.32) and second in the Big Ten in rebounds per game (38.77). Even in an 89-67 win against Rutgers at home on Dec. 3, Minnesota still allowed 17 offensive rebounds. The problem is Rutgers could only score 10 second-chance points and shot 32 percent from the field in the game. Steve Pikiell’s team finished dead last in the conference because it has major issues putting the ball in the basket (worst in scoring at 57.9 ppg and worst in field goal percentage at 37.0). So you just can’t give the Scarlet Knights too many extra opportunities.
BIRTHDAY BOY — Jordan Murphy turned 21 on Wednesday. The best birthday gift would be to stay alive in the Big Ten tournament with an opening win against Rutgers. To do that, the Gophers junior forward will have to be more efficient inside than he was against the Scarlet Knights’ lengthy D in their last meeting. Murphy scored 18 points, but he shot only 3-for-13 from the field. He made up for that by shooting 12-for-14 from the foul line. Some Gophers fans believe Murphy was slighted by not being named All-Big Ten first team on Monday since he led the Big Ten with 11.4 rebounds per game. He earned second-team honors from the media and third team by the coaches. Maybe Murphy can use it as motivation to have a dominant performance down low to extend Minnesota’s stay in New York City. Murphy’s been back to his double-double prowess with three consecutive games entering Wednesday, which added to his Division-I leading 24 this season. A great Big Ten tournament showing could carry over into next season when Murphy has a chance to break all-time school scoring and rebounding records in his senior season (possibly in front of his parents if they move from Texas again).
Time: 7 p.m. CT, Wednesday. Where: Madison Square Garden. Line: Minnesota by 1. Series: Gophers lead Rutgers 7-1. Last meeting Gophers won 89-67 on Dec. 3, 2017. TV: Big Ten Network Online/Live video: BTN2go Radio: 100.3 FM and 1130 AM
MINNESOTA (15-16, 4-14)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Nate Mason 6-2 Sr. 16.8
G – Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Jr. 9.5
F – Michael Hurt 6-7 So. 3.3
F – Jordan Murphy 6-7 Jr. 17.0
C – Bakary Konate 6-11 Sr. 1.7
Reserves– Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, Fr., 8.4; Jamir Harris, G, 6-2, Fr., 4.1 ppg; Davonte Fitzgerald, F, 6-8, Jr., 3.6 ppg; Gaston Diedhiou, F/C, 6-10, Sr., 1.8 ppg.
Coach: Richard Pitino 108-91 (6th season)
Notable: The Gophers are shooting 40.5 percent (365-for-901) from the field and 35.1 percent from three-point range (107-for-305) in the 15 games without center Reggie Lynch, who was expelled after dropping his appeal on a suspension for an alleged sexual assault. After the regular season-ending 84-60 loss at Purdue, Mason (hip) and Bakary Konate (flu) missed practice this week, but they are expected to play Wednesday. The Gophers are playing for Mason, Konate and fellow senior Gaston Diedhiou to extend their college career. Pitino has won his first Big Ten tournament game in three of his four seasons at Minnesota, including in the 2017 Big Ten tournament quarterfinals against Michigan State. The Gophers defeated Rutgers by 22 points at Williams Arena on Dec. 3, but they were ranked No. 12 in the nation and still had Lynch and Amir Coffey, who is out for the season after having shoulder surgery. Coffey returned from a shoulder after a five-game absence the last time Minnesota played at MSG against Ohio State on Jan. 20 ... Freshman guard Jamir Harris, who is averaging 4.1 points and shooting 35 percent from three-point range, is a New Jersey native and his father is a former Rutgers football player.
RUTGERS (13-18, 3-15)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Corey Sanders 6-2 Jr. 14.3
G – Geo Baker 6-4 Fr. 10.5
G – Mike Williams 6-2 Sr. 8.3
F – Deshawn Freeman 6-7 Sr. 11.2
C – Issa Thiam 6-10 So. 7.2
Key reserves– Eugene Omoruyi, F, 6-7, So., 8.0 ppg; Mamadou Doucoure, F, 6-9, Fr., 2.9 ppg; Candido Sa, F, 6-9, Sr., 2.2 ppg; Shaquille Doorson, C, 7-0, Jr., 1.9 ppg; Jake Dadika, G, 6-1, Sr., 0.9 ppg.
Coach: Steve Pikiell 220-192 (13th season)
Notable: The Scarlet Knights enter the postseason with 10 losses in their last 11 games. Their last victory was 67-58 against Northwestern at home Feb. 13. They have three senior starters in Deshawn Freeman, Jake Dadika and Mike Williams, who could be playing their final college game Wednesday. Junior Corey Sanders leads them in scoring (14.1) and assists (3.1) this season. Rutgers is less than an hour away from Madison Square Garden, so it might be like a home game for the Scarlet Knights on Wednesday. But senior guard Mike Williams is the only New York native to play for Rutgers this season.
Fuller’s prediction (24-7 picks record): Gophers 75, Rutgers 73. The Gophers having nothing left to play for except for pride and their seniors. That was the case three years ago when they finished 6-12 in the Big Ten and also played Rutgers in the first round of the Big Ten tournament in Chicago. Seniors Andre Hollins, Mo Walker, DeAndre Mathieu and Elliott Eliason had at least one more victory before their careers were over in maroon and gold. Mason and Konate were freshmen on that team in 2014-15. If they both are healthy enough to play even close to how they did on Senior night to beat Iowa (Mason had 33 points and Konate had 10 rebounds), then Minnesota will move on to play No. 6 seed Indiana on Thursday night in New York.