Mount St. Mary’s vs. Gophers men’s basketball

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

Frontcourt rotation with Curry – Sunday will be the first time we see redshirt sophomore big man Eric Curry in the rotation since the NCAA tournament loss against Middle Tennessee in 2017. He nearly made his season debut before Christmas. Curry showed even more progress feeling comfortable on his knee this week in practice. He also moved well in warmups before Sunday's game against Mount St. Mary's. Richard Pitino saw what his frontcourt rotation would look like at full strength Oct. 20 in a closed scrimmage win at Creighton. Curry was his starting center, while freshman Daniel Oturu and senior Matz Stockman gave the Gophers size and length behind Curry. Senior Jordan Murphy also had Oturu and Jarvis Omersa giving him help off the bench at power forward. The potential was there for one of the most athletic frontcourts in the Big Ten. But Curry was sidelined for the first 12 games of the season after surgery on his previously repaired left knee. There will be less pressure on the 6-foot-9 Memphis native with Oturu already making an impact as a starter. Curry’s ability to play both frontcourt spots and defend is what can give Minnesota an immediate boost, Pitino said. Murphy had a season-high 30 points and 16 rebounds and Oturu added 20 points and 11 rebounds to fuel the U’s comeback in a Dec. 21 win vs. North Carolina A&T. But if the Gophers can build a big lead early, Curry and others off the bench will have a chance to play a bit more Sunday. That could be beneficial when Big Ten play resumes Thursday at Wisconsin.

Defensive identity – The Gophers leaned on their defense to reach the NCAA tournament in 2017, but they haven’t established themselves on that side of the ball yet this season. Among Big Ten teams, Minnesota ranks 12th in scoring defense (69.7), 11th in field goal percentage defense (42.9) and 13th in three-point field goal percentage defense (35.5). A rim protector is there with Oturu, who ranks third in the league with 2.0 blocks per game. The biggest issues are a lack of pressure on the ball and turning defense into offense with turnovers and steals. Pitino’s team is last in the Big Ten and 305th out of 351 Division I teams in steals per game (5.0), which would be the lowest in a season since 2006-07 (4.8). Minnesota is a poor outside shooting team. So getting more deflections should lead to easier scoring opportunities in transition, which is the best way for the Gophers to score in a grind-out league like the Big Ten.  

Jelly’s dimes – No player in Gophers history recorded double digits in assists in back-to-back games until sophomore Isaiah Washington had games of 13 and 10 assists against North Florida and North Carolina A&T, respectively. Washington has three double-digit assist games this season, including 11 assists in the season opener vs. Omaha. Expecting the New York native to drop that many dimes every time out obviously isn’t realistic. But Washington has more than just a 'Jelly' finger roll in his game. He has the potential to give Minnesota one of the top playmakers off the bench in the Big Ten. Once his jump shots fall on a more consistent basis, he will be even tougher to keep from making plays for himself and others. Washington averages 9.0 assists per 40 minutes, but even more impressive is his assist rate (41.7), ranking second in the Big Ten (behind only Michigan State’s Cassius Winston) and seventh nationally.

GAME INFO

Time: 3 p.m. CT, Sunday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Gophers 24.5-point favorite. Series: Gophers lead series 2-0, including 80-56 in the last meeting on Nov. 16, 2016 at the Barn. TV: ESPNU. Online/Live video: WatchESPN Radio: 103.5 FM.

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (10-2)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G- Amir Coffey 6-8 Jr. 15.3

G- Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Sr. 10.2

G- Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 Fr. 10.8

F- Jordan Murphy 6-7 Sr. 16.2

C- Daniel Oturu 6-10 Fr. 10.7

Key reserves– Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, So., 5.2 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Jr., 2.3 ppg; Brock Stull, G, 6-4, Sr., 2.2 ppg; Matz Stockman, C, 7-0, Sr., 3.8 ppg; Jarvis Omersa, F, 6-7, Fr., 1.5; Eric Curry, F-C, 6-9, So. (hasn't played this season).

Coach: Richard Pitino 100-80 (6th season)  

Notable: Curry, who missed last season with torn ligaments and meniscus in his left knee, has missed all 12 games this season after knee surgery in the fall. Curry averaged 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes per game on the U’s NCAA tournament team in 2016-17. He was sidelined again in late October after an MRI revealed cartilage damage with his previously injured left knee swelling. Curry has been cleared for full contact in practice, so Pitino hopes to play him in limited minutes Sunday … Junior guard Amir Coffey scored a season-low seven points in just 23 minutes against North Carolina A&T, but he has recovered from a hip pointer injury that limited him in the last game.

MOUNT ST. MARY’S MOUNTAINEERS (3-9) 

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G-Damian Chong Qui 5-8 Fr. 4.7

G-Jalen Gibbs 6-3 So. 16.1

G-Dee Barnes 6-4 Fr. 7.4

F-Nana Opoku 6-8 Fr. 6.9

F-Malik Jefferson 6-9 Fr. 7.6

Key reserves– Vado Morse, G, 6-0, Fr., 10.9 ppg; Omar Habwe, F, 6-6, So., 8.9 ppg; Matt Becht, G, 6-2, Fr., 3.0 ppg; Collin Nnamene, F, 6-8, Fr., 2.8 ppg.

Coach: Dan Englestad 107-43 (6th overall season and first at MSM)  

Notable: Mount St Mary’s freshman Malik Jefferson was named Northeast Conference Co-Rookie of the Week on Dec. 24. Jefferson grabbed a career-best 20 rebounds in a 56-55 win over American on Dec. 18. The 6-9, 230-pound forward averages 7.6 rebounds per game this season, including three double-digit performances on the boards ... The Mountaineers suffered through a nine-game losing streak during the first month and a half of the season, which included losses at North Carolina State 105-55, at Maryland 92-77 and at St. John’s 85-71. They bounced back with three straight wins, most recently 84-44 against St. Mary’s (Md.) on Dec. 22.   

Fuller’s predictionGophers 92, Mount St. Mary’s 70. The Gophers picked the right opponent to build confidence and even more momentum going into Big Ten play. Their fifth straight victory Sunday will be against arguably the worst opponent the Gophers will face this season (MSM is ranked 325th nationally by KenPom). That matters little, though, with Curry getting his first game action since the NCAA tournament first-round loss to Middle Tennessee in March 2017. Murphy, Curry, Oturu and Stockman should give the Gophers enough horses in the frontcourt to compete against anyone in the Big Ten inside this season, especially the more Curry gets comfortable with his knee.