Gophers men’s hoops vs. Northwestern 

FOUR THINGS TO WATCH:

Welcome back, Willis – Much-needed depth will be added to the backcourt Sunday with junior guard Payton Willis expected to return after missing three straight games with a left ankle injury. Willis first suffered the injury in a Dec. 9 loss at Iowa. The 6-foot-5 former Vanderbilt transfer averaged 11 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists and shot 38 percent from three-point range in 29.8 minutes. How much Willis plays is uncertain, but the Gophers missed his experience with freshman Tre’ Williams in the starting role. Williams had some encouraging play at times, but sophomore point guard Marcus Carr took on too much responsibility late in games. With three minutes left in the second half in Thursday’s 83-78 overtime loss at Purdue, the Gophers took a five-point lead after Carr’s back-to-back layups on strong drives. Minnesota had never lost this season with a lead in the last five minutes. But Carr's two turnovers under a minute led to the Boilermakers sending the game into overtime after a three-pointer. Two more Carr turnovers in the first overtime and a missed potential game-winner with four seconds left was a sign of fatigue. Carr, who had 27 points and seven turnovers in 48 minutes, was the reason the Gophers had a chance to pull off the upset to begin with. But he needed help handling the ball against pressure in crunch time. Willis can provide that moving forward when healthy.

Wildcats depleted: It's a good thing Northwestern add experience to the backcourt with former Loyola (M.D.) lacrosse All-American Pat Spencer. The graduate transfer will take over point guard duites Sunday with freshman Boo Buie (lower-body) out. Spencer is averaging 9.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and started 10 games. Buie is the biggest loss after averaging 21 points in his last three games, which included a career-high 26 points in a Dec. 18 loss vs. Michigan State. Junior guard Anthony Gaines, who averaged 5.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and a team-best 1.4 steals, will miss the remainder of the season with shoulder surgery, the team announced. Senior forward A.J. Turner also is day-to-day with a lower-body injury but won't play Sunday. Turner averaged 3.7 points and 2.3 rebounds and started the last game. 

Too close for comfort – The Gophers are 0-5 this season in games decided by single digits, but they’ve defeated opponents by an average margin of 24 points per game. Close games have not come out in Minnesota’s favor yet this season. Part of that could be Richard Pitino’s starters not having the energy to finish games strong. Pitino relies less on his bench so far than any season during his seven-year tenure, ranking 316th out of 353 Division I teams in bench minutes (24.3 percent). That likely contributed to Carr’s late-game struggles vs. Purdue. As brilliant as sophomore center Daniel Oturu has been all season and for most of the game Thursday (29 points and 18 rebounds), he was in foul trouble. Oturu didn’t have much help slowing down Matt Haarms (26 points, including 10 in overtime) at the end of the game. Sophomore Jarvis Omersa fouled out and senior Alihan Demir was limited by a knee injury. Sunday’s opponent Northwestern has lost three straight games by a combined 11 points, including 67-66 against Hartford on Dec. 29.

Youth movement – The Wildcats rely more on underclassmen than any Big Ten team this season. Two freshmen (Buie and Ryan Young) and two sophomores (Pete Nance and Miler Kopp) are starters. Northwestern’s top four scorers are also either freshmen or sophomores, including leading scorer Miller Kopp, a 6-7 sophomore forward. Kopp is averaging 22.5 points in his last two games in losses to DePaul and Hartford. Young had a career-high 25 points in his team’s last victory Dec.15 vs. SIUE. The Gophers don’t rely much on their four freshmen, with only Williams (17.8) averaging more than seven minutes a game. But Pitino’s top three scorers Oturu, Carr and Gabe Kalscheur are sophomores. They are the highest scoring trio in the Big Ten at a 48.9 points combined per game.

GAME INFO

Time: 6:30 p.m. CT, Sunday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Minnesota 9.5-point favorites. Series: Gophers lead the series 96-68, including the last meeting 62-50 on Feb. 28, 2019 in Evanston, Ill. TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: BTN2go. Radio: 103.5

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (7-6)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G – Marcus Carr 6-2 190 So. 15.8

G – Tre’ Williams 6-5 195 Fr. 3.5

G – Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 200 So. 14.0

F – Alihan Demir 6-9 235 Sr. 7.5

C – Daniel Oturu 6-10 245 So. 19.1

Key reserves– Payton Willis, G, 6-5, Jr., 11.0 ppg; Jarvis Omersa, F, 6-7, So., 2.6 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Sr., 2.2 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 137-112 (8th season overall)  

Notable: Redshirt junior big man Eric Curry had successful surgery in the fall on a torn ACL in his right knee suffered during practice Oct. 7. The 6-9 redshirt junior hasn’t played a full season since his freshman year in 2016-17 after tearing ligaments in his left knee in 2017 and foot surgery last season. The last time Curry saw the court for the Gophers was with six points, four rebounds and two blocks in 13 minutes in a win at Northwestern on Feb. 28, 2019 ... The Gophers are the highest ranked six-loss team in the NCAA's NET rankings at No. 37 as of Sunday. 

NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS (5-7)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Pat Spencer 6-3 Sr. 9.3

G – Miller Kopp 6-7 So. 12.6

G – Robbie Beran 6-9 Fr. 3.7

G – Pete Nance 6-10 So. 10.6

C – Ryan Young 6-10 Fr. 10.8

Key reserves – Jared Jones, F, 6-10, Fr., 1.4 ppg.

Coach: Pat Fitzgerald 106-103 (7th season) 

Notable: Northwestern has the second worst NET rankings among Big Ten teams as of Sunday at No. 163 ahead of only Nebraska at No. 167. The Wildcats haven't played at the Barn since a 77-69 loss Jan. 23, 2018. The only player on their current roster with experience from that game is junior Anthony Gaines, who is out for the season.

Fuller’s prediction (7-6 with picks): Gophers 75, Northwestern 66.