GOPHERS MEN'S HOOPS VS. NORTHWESTERN
FULLER'S FOUR THINGS TO WATCH:
Defending the paint
Most teams don't have a shot-blocking presence like Liam Robbins roaming the paint.
It's been a luxury for the Gophers to have a 7-footer to erase some of the mistakes they've made defensively, but they've seen recently what life is like without him.
Robbins reaggravated a sprained ankle in Saturday's 94-63 loss against No. 5 Illinois, so he's out for Thursday's game against Northwestern. The Drake transfer had his left ankle in a walking boot before the game.
He averaged 13 points, seven rebounds and nearly three blocks before hurting his ankle in the second half of a Feb. 11 win vs. Purdue at home. Robbins combined for seven blocks in the last two games, but he clearly needed rest. He averaged just two points and three rebounds in the last three games in limited minutes.
Pitino has already looked at different center options in practice, including 6-8 senior Brandon Johnson sliding over from his starting power forward spot. Johnson has provided a scoring inside presence with Robbins hobbled, but he's undersized in the Big Ten.
Redshirt senior Eric Curry (6-9, 240) was listed as the starter Thursday. But sophomore Sam Freeman (6-10, 240) is also equipped physically to match up with Northwestern's 6-10 Pete Nance and 6-10 Ryan Young.
"Brandon might have to play the five some," Richard Pitino said Wednesday. "There are spots that guys have to play that they haven't played before. It's unfortunate that it's happening at this time. We need rest to get guys healthy."
New backcourt attack
Going into the season, Pitino preached about the Gophers having a balanced scoring attack, but clearly the backcourt was their strength.
Two starters returning were guards with Marcus Carr and Gabe Kalscheur. They added transfer Both Gach and four-star recruit Jamal Mashburn Jr. Sophomore Tre' Williams also showed promise the previous season.
With four games left in the regular season entering Thursday, the Gophers are hoping they can lean more on the backcourt again. But it's been a different look with Kalscheur (broken finger) and Gach (foot) injured.
Carr opened the season playing alongside Gach and Kalscheur, but now he's starting with Mashburn and Williams. That three-guard attack made an impressive debut with a combined 49 points in an 82-72 loss Feb. 17 at Indiana.
"They were the strength driving the basketball and getting to the rim," Pitino said. "They were really tough to guard. We were really, really bad defensively."
Kalscheur sidelined is a significant blow to the Gophers' perimeter defense with his ability to often lockdown the opposing team's best guard.
Mashburn has blossomed offensively replacing Kalscheur averaging 17.5 points his last two games. Williams has scored in double figures in three straight games for the first time in his career. Carr, who missed some practice to rest a foot injury, doesn't have to carry the load as much with more backcourt scoring options.
Can the Gophers also pick up the pace defensively enough to win games when they're not shooting well? The answer may come against Northwestern.
"The physicality level needs to pick up," Pitino said. "But offensively they're very unique because they can put the ball in the basket."
Only Nebraska ranks worst in the Big Ten in rebounding margin than the Gophers (minus-3.3). Minnesota won the battle of the boards for three straight games vs. Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State earlier in the season. But that wasn't enough to overcome being overpowered on the glass by Illinois twice (minus-18 and minus-10), Iowa twice (minus-17 and minus-6), Michigan twice (minus-9 and minus-4), Maryland (minus-8) and Purdue (minus-17) on the road.
During a three-game win streak, the Gophers made strides holding their own on the boards. They were barely outrebounded by Rutgers and Purdue (both minus-two), two of the most physical teams in the Big Ten. Minnesota had success crashing the offensive boards, grabbing 16 vs. Rutgers and Nebraska, and then 13 vs. Purdue at home.
Robbins, who had his third double-double this season with 11 points and 10 rebounds vs. Purdue at home, leads the Gophers (6.6) in rebounding this season. But this isn't like years past when Jordan Murphy (twice) and Daniel Oturu (last season) led the Big Ten in rebounding. They were good for 10-12 rebounds every night. Now it has to be more of a team effort.
The Gophers currently rank No. 1 in the Big Ten overall (17.3) in free throws made per game overall, but that number has dropped to 14.4 free throws made in Big Ten games. This season is still a major upgrade from last year when they ranked 285th nationally with 11.5 foul shots made per game. They're getting to the line nearly twice as often and converting 75 percent, ranked fourth in the Big Ten in league games. Getting to the line is obviously a strength for Pitino's team. Getting outshot has been detrimental. They were 5-14 when outshot by their opponent on free throws last season. They're 3-7 in the same situation this season, which included a three-game losing streak.
Carr, who shoots 79.3% from the foul line, ranks third in the Big Ten with 107 free throws made this season trailing only Iowa's Luka Garza (115) and Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis (132). Carr attacking the basket and getting to the foul line more often is critical to Minnesota's offense.
Time: 8 p.m. CT, Thursday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Minnesota 4.5-point favorite. Series: Gophers lead the series 99-68, including 74-57 win in 2020 Big Ten tournament first round in Indianapolis. TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: BTN-Plus Radio: 100.3 KFAN
MINNESOTA GOPHERS (13-10, 6-10)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Marcus Carr 6-2 195 Jr. 19.0
G – Jamal Mashburn Jr. 6-2 175 Fr. 7.1
G – Tre' Williams 6-5 195 So. 4.6
F – Brandon Johnson 6-8 220 Sr. 9.0
F – Eric Curry 6-9 240 Sr. 3.4
Reserves– Both Gach, G, 6-6, Jr., 7.3 ppg; Isaiah Ihnen, F, 6-9, So., 2.5 ppg; Sam Freeman, C, 6-10, So., 1.0 ppg.
Coach: Richard Pitino 158-132 (9th season overall)
Notable: Senior forward Brandon Johnson had a season-high 26 points on 8-for-9 shooting from three in the overtime win vs. Iowa on Christmas Day. The Gophers were 17-for-43 from three, setting a team record for attempts from beyond the arc. Johnson's three-point percentage in that game was a team record and he tied the single-game record for threes made. The Chicago native is shooting 33% from three this season, but he hasn't been able to come close to duplicating that one record-setting performance. He shot 2-for-11 on threes in the seven games before Iowa. Johnson's shot 1-for-14 from long distance since Dec. 25. The Gophers shot 27-for-68 (39.7%) from three in back-to-back wins vs. St. Louis and Iowa, but they have shot 29.6% from deep this season, last in the Big Ten and 315th nationally.
NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS (6-14, 3-13)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Boo Buie 6-2 180 So. 9.5
G – Chase Audige 6-4 200 So. 12.9
G – Miller Kopp 6-7 215 Jr. 11.7
F – Pete Nance 6-10 225 Jr. 11.5
C – Ryan Young 6-10 245 So. 8.2
Key reserves – Ty Berry, G, 6-3, Fr., 5.1 ppg; Ryan Greer, G, 6-2, Jr., 2.9 ppg; Anthony Gaines, G, 6-4, Jr., 4.4 ppg; Robbie Beran, F, 6-9, So., 5.6 ppg.
Coach: Chris Collins 115-133 (8th season)
Notable: The Wildcats are looking for their first win since defeating Ohio State in Evanston, Ill. on Dec. 26. Since the first 3-0 start in team history, Northwestern has dropped 13 straight games, including a 68-51 loss against Wisconsin at home Sunday. The closest games for the Wildcats during the losing streak came 81-78 at Penn State and 79-76 vs. Indiana. Redshirt sophomore guard Chase Audige leads the team with 12.9 points per game this season. The William and Mary transfer managed just five points on 2-for-7 shooting in the loss to Wisconsin, but he has highs of 22 and 25 points in Big Ten play.
Fuller's score prediction (Picks record 14-9): Gophers 73, Northwestern 69.