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No. 5 Gophers vs. No. 12 Middle Tennessee

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

LYNCH FOUL TROUBLE– If there’s one thing we know more than anything else this season, the Gophers are a completely different team when Reggie Lynch is on the floor. Lynch was the Division I leader in defensive box plus/minus at 10.3 entering Thursday’s NCAA tournament first round game against Middle Tennessee. What does that mean? Minnesota hold the opponent to 10 fewer points when he’s on the court. Combine that with the fact that Lynch is becoming more of an offensive threat (28 points on 12-for-14 shooting combined in the last two games), he clearly is the biggest factor in this game. What did Michigan State not have last year when it lost to MTSU in the first round? A strong presence in the middle. Minnesota has that with Lynch, along with a rebounding machine in Jordan Murphy. The production in the paint will be the difference.

SWITCHING DEFENSE– Middle Tennessee gives teams fits by switching man-to-man to a 2-3 and trapping 1-3-1 matchup zone defense during different possessions throughout the game. They never really stay consistent, especially after made baskets. So this type of scheme might really disrupt the Gophers offense if they can’t get into transition often. Minnesota’s defense is stingy as well, leading the Big Ten in three-point shooting defense and blocks per game among other categories. But how well has Pitino prepared his players to face a zone? Can they shoot well enough from the outside to keep MTSU honest? Those are questions we’ll find out soon.

NATE VS. GIDDY– When Nate Mason matches up with another top guard, he usually licks his chops to not only play well offensively but defensively as well. He takes pride in shutting down the opposing team’s best perimeter player. That didn’t happen in the Gophers’ last game vs. Michigan when Derrick Walton Jr. scored 29 points, including 19 points in the second half in the Big Ten tournament semifinal loss. Mason was too worried about playing well offensively, finishing with 23 points. The Blue Raiders have two dangerous post players with JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw, but Giddy Potts led them to the Conference USA tournament title last week. Potts averaged 19.3 points during a three-game stretch, which included two 30-point performances. He had 19 points in MTSU’s NCAA tourney win last year against Michigan State. Mason’s play early against fellow junior Potts will be something to watch for sure Thursday.

GAME INFO

Time: 3 p.m. CT, Thursday. Where: Bradley Center. Line: Middle Tennessee by 1.5. Series: Minnesota leads 4-1; Minnesota won last meeting 78-72 in Murfreesboro, Tenn. March 21, 2012. TV: TNT Online/Live video: NCAA.com Radio: 1500ESPN.

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA (24-9)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G-Nate Mason 6-2 Jr. 15.5

G-Amir Coffey 6-8 Fr. 12.1

G-Dupree McBrayer 6-5 So. 10.9

F-Jordan Murphy 6-6 So. 11.2

C-Reggie Lynch 6-10 Jr. 8.4

Key reserves– Eric Curry, F/C, 6-9, Fr., 5.4 ppg; Bakary Konate, C, 6-11, Jr., 1.7 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Fr., 0.7 ppg; Ahmad Gilbert, F, 6-6, So., 1.8 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 93-74 (5th season)

Notable: The Gophers are looking for their second NCAA tournament win in the last 20 years. They defeated UCLA and lost to Florida in the 2013 NCAA tournament in Austin, Texas. That was the program’s first victory in the Big Dance since the 1997 Final Four season. What helped the Gophers win an NCAA tournament game four years ago? The play of Andre Hollins, who scored 28 points in a 83-63 win against the No. 6 seed Bruins. Hollins also led the Gophers with 24 points in their last meeting with Middle Tennessee to reach the NIT Final Four in 2012. Is that a sign for Thursday’s game?

MIDDLE TENNESSEE (30-4)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G-Tyrik Dixon 6-1 Fr. 5.8

G-Giddy Potts 6-2 Jr. 15.8

G-Ed Simpson 6-2 Jr. 3.5

F-JaCorey Williams 6-8 Sr. 17.3

F-Reggie Upshaw 6-8 Sr. 14.5

Key reserves–Xavier Habersham,G, 6-6, Sr., 5.4 ppg; Brandon Walters, C, 6-10, Jr., 4.5 ppg; Antwain Johnson, G, 6-2, So., 4.4 ppg; Aldonis Foote, G/F, 6-5, Sr., 2.2 ppg; Karl Gamble, F, 6-9, So.,1.6 ppg.

Coach: Kermit Davis 306-179 (15th season)

Notable: The Blue Raiders hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1989 before they upset No. 2 seed Michigan State last year, 90-81. …Davis has been to three NCAA tournaments with MTSU. He made it as an at-large bid with a 28-5 record in 2013. Who beat the Blue Raiders in the Sun Belt tournament semifinals to end a 17-game winning streak? It was Florida International and first-year head coach Richard Pitino by a score of 61-57.

Fuller’s prediction (29-4 picks record): Gophers 76, Middle Tennessee 69. The Gophers have been hearing for days how they’re the underdog Thursday against Middle Tennessee. Only six times has the lower seeded team been favored in the 5-12 matchup. Everyone is on the Blue Raider bandwagon because of what happen last year against the Spartans. This really, really provides bulletin board material for Pitino. The lack of respect has motivated Minnesota’s players all season to have the biggest turnaround in college basketball with a 16-win improvement. It’s only fitting that after all the Gophers accomplished they still aren’t supposed to beat a mid-major opponent whose best victory was against Vanderbilt. Guess what? Minnesota beat Vandy, too, and a whole lot of other quality teams. Minnesota uses Lynch and Murphy to control the paint and Mason and Amir Coffey have big games to keep Gophers fans around until Saturday’s second round in Milwaukee.