Nebraska at Gophers
THREE THINGS TO WATCH:
FAREWELL SPRINGS– Senior captain Akeem Springs plays his final home game at Williams Arena on Thursday. In his one season with the Gophers, Springs became their emotional leader and arguably their most clutch performer. He went from spark off the bench to most conistent shooting starter during Big Ten play. His biggest change as a player was going from primarily a three-point shooter (leads team with 64 threes) to a slasher, rebounder and the team’s top perimeter defender. His biggest change as a person was -- he didn't change at all. He's been vocal from Day 1. And his confidence, passion and energy are contagious. How many players can say they’ve won at the Barn both on the home and opposing teams? It just tells you how interesting Springs’ college career has been -- for sure.
BLOCK NATION– When Reggie Lynch isn’t worried about being in foul trouble he proved how amazing he can be defensively with a career-high 11 blocks and zero fouls in Saturday’s 81-71 win against Penn State. Lynch blocked nine shots against St. John’s on Nov. 18, but he also had four fouls. Imagined what he could’ve done in that game with no fouls. Wow. Lynch’s 11 blocks were the most in the Big Ten since 2000 and the second best single-game performance in league history after U great Mychal Thompson’s 12 blocks in 1976. Lynch broke Randy Breuer’s single-season program record of 87 blocks. So now his 95 blocks and counting give him a shot to finish with one of the top all-time shot blocking seasons in the Big Ten. Ohio State’s Ken Johnson is too far ahead with his single-season conference record of 161 blocks. Maybe next year. But Lynch could easily finish in the top 10, which includes former NBA big men Calvin Booth, Acie Earl, Joe Barry Carroll and Greg Oden.
GUARD BATTLE– Nate Mason, Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer and Springs have scored a combined 116 points in the last two games in wins against Maryland and Penn State. That’s by far the best Minnesota’s four guards have played together all season. But they haven’t faced a guard tandem like Nebraska’s yet this year. The Cornhuskers’ high-scoring backcourt duo of Glynn Watson and Tai Webster twice hit the 50-point park between them, including 57 points combined in a 93-90 win against Iowa. Watson has scored 20 points or more seven times, but not in his last 11 games. Webster has reached the 20-point mark nine times this year, but not in his last eight games. They could be due to blow up soon. Maybe even Thursday in Minneapolis. Watch out.
Time: 6 p.m. CT, Thursday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Gophers by 9. Series: Minnesota leads 50-15; Nebraska won last meeting 84-59 Jan. 12, 2016 in Lincoln. TV: ESPN. Online/Live video: ESPNapp Radio: 1500ESPN.
MINNESOTA (22-7, 10-6)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G-Nate Mason 6-2 Jr. 15.1
G-Amir Coffey 6-8 Fr. 12.2
G-Akeem Springs 6-4 Sr. 10.1
F-Jordan Murphy 6-6 So. 11.0
C-Reggie Lynch 6-10 Jr. 8.2
Key reserves– Dupree McBrayer, G, 6-5, So., 10.9 ppg; Eric Curry, F/C, 6-9, Fr., 5.8 ppg; Bakary Konate, C, 6-11, Jr., 1.8 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Fr., 0.9 ppg; Ahmad Gilbert, F, 6-6, So., 1.8 ppg.
Coach: Richard Pitino 91-72 (5th season)
Notable: Name the opponent that embarrassed the Gophers the most during one Big Ten regular season game last year? The answer is Nebraska. During last year’s game in Lincoln, the Gophers trailed by 21 points at halftime and 38 points (yes nearly 40!!!) with 8:45 left in the second half. The largest margin of defeat in Minnesota team history was 46 points to Indiana led by Calbert Cheaney in 1992. Second largest was by 40 points in 1967 to UCLA led by Lew Alcindor before he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The final margin was 25 at Nebraska last year, only because Tim Miles felt sorry for his friend Pitino and put in his bench players with 5 ½ minutes left. You think returning Gophers players will remember that beat down? How could they not.
NEBRASKA (12-16, 6-10)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G-Glynn Watson Jr. 6-0 So. 13.4
G-Tai Webster 6-4 Sr. 17.8
G-Evan Taylor 6-5 Jr. 5.0
F-Michael Jacobson 6-9 So. 6.0
C-Jordy Tshimanga 6-11 Fr.
Key reserves– Jack McVeigh, F, 6-8, So., 7.9 ppg; Ed Morrow Jr., F, 6-7, So., 9.3 ppg; Jeriah Horne, F, 6-7, Fr., 4.2 ppg; Anton Gill, G, 6-3, Jr., 3.8 ppg; Isaiah Roby, F, 6-8, Fr., 3.0 ppg
Coach: Tim Miles 245-240 (16th year)
Notable: Webster joins Washington freshman star Markelle Fultz as the only two players among power conference schools to average at least 17 points, five rebounds and four assists. The New Zealand native also needs just three points to be the fourth player in Nebraska history to reach 500 points and 100 assists in a season. Cleveland Cavaliers coach and former Husker guard Tyronn Lue did it twice in 1996-97 and 1997-98.
Fuller’s prediction (25-4 picks record): Gophers 71, Nebraska 63. The Gophers could tie UCLA with their eighth straight victory, currently the longest win streak among power conference teams. Winning seven in a row wasn’t good enough for Minnesota to get a top 25 ranking in either poll this week. Pitino said he didn’t care about rankings, because they don’t matter. He’s right. He could use that as more motivation for his players. But do they really need it? A top-four seed and double-bye in next week’s Big Ten tournament is still very realistic with a victory Thursday. Mason and Murphy have a chance to earn All-Big Ten honors with a strong regular-season finish. Coffey and Lynch will be up for All-freshman team and All-defensive team honors, respectively. And Pitino can likely secure Big Ten coach of the year honors over Northwestern’s Chris Collins, if he keeps adding to the biggest turnaround in Division I basketball this year. So there’s still so much to play for besides being slighted by many top 25 poll voters.