Gophers vs. Michigan
THREE THINGS TO WATCH:
Replacing Springs– The loss of senior guard Akeem Springs to an Achilles’ tendon injury is a blow the Gophers won’t be able to replace easily. Springs was the team’s top three-point shooter (65 threes during the regular season) and emotional leader. In just one season, the 6-foot-4 graduate transfer from Milwaukee-Wisconsin was named a captain and became a go-to guy in late-game situations. Sophomore Dupree McBrayer, who will replace Springs in the lineup, started the first 19 games of the season before becoming a lethal scoring sixth man since the Jan. 21 loss against Wisconsin. McBrayer averages 10.8 points per game and shoots a team-best 41.2 percent from three-point range. But how do the Gophers replace his presence off the bench? Freshman Michael Hurt or sophomore Ahmad “JR” Gilbert could be added to the main rotation.
Stretch Bigs– It’s difficult to simulate a pair of athletic 6-10 big men who can knock down three-pointers as well as anyone on the floor. That’s what Michigan features in the frontcourt with sophomore Moritz Wagner and junior D.J. Wilson, who shoot 45.2 and 36.4 percent from beyond the arc, respectively. Wilson had 26 points, eight rebounds and three blocks in Friday’s 74-70 overtime win against top-seeded Purdue in Washington D.C. Wagner has only 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting in two Big Ten tournament games this year. But Wilson and Wagner combined for 31 points in an 83-78 overtime loss Feb. 19 at Minnesota. Minnesota’s Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy also played will in the last meeting with 27 points and 23 rebounds combined against the Wolverines. That frontcourt matchup could be the difference in Saturday’s semifinal.
Mason factor– Will Nate Mason play like an All-Big Ten first team guard Saturday against Michigan? The Gophers probably need their best player to have a stellar performance to advance to the program’s first Big Ten tournament championship game since 2010. The last time the U got that far, it was point guard Devoe Joseph leading the way. Mason is even more talented. But the 6-2 junior struggled with 10 points on 2-for-14 shooting and three turnovers in 36 minutes Friday against Michigan State. He was one of the top guards in the Big Ten with assist-to-turnover ratio and averaged 17.2 points in league play. The Wolverines have their own All-Big Ten floor leader in Derrick Walton Jr. So maybe Mason will rise to the challenge against another top guard.
Time: Noon p.m. CT, Saturday. Where: Verizon Center. Line: Gophers by 3.5. Series: Michigan leads 91-66; Minnesota won last meeting 83-78 in overtime Feb. 19, 2017 in Minneapolis. TV: CBS. Online/Live video: CBSSportsapp Radio: 1500ESPN.
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G-Nate Mason 6-2 Jr. 15.3
G-Amir Coffey 6-8 Fr. 12.1
G-Dupree McBrayer 6-5 So. 10.8
F-Jordan Murphy 6-6 So. 11.1
C-Reggie Lynch 6-10 Jr. 8.3
Key reserves– Eric Curry, F/C, 6-9, Fr., 5.5 ppg; Bakary Konate, C, 6-11, Jr., 1.7 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Fr., 0.9 ppg; Ahmad Gilbert, F, 6-6, So., 1.7 ppg.
Coach: Richard Pitino 93-73 (5th season)
Notable: Lynch ranks second in the nation and first in the Big Ten in blocks per game (3.5). His 111 blocks ranks sixth all-time in single-season Big Ten history behind Iowa’s Acie Earl (121), Northwestern’s Jim Pitts (123), Ohio State’s Ken Johnson (125), Penn State’s Calvin Booth (140) and Johnson (161). Lynch’s five blocks Friday against Michigan State tied a school Big Ten tournament record with Ralph Sampson III. The conference tourney record is eight.
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G-Derrick Walton Jr. 6-1 Sr. 14.6
G-Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman 6-4 Jr. 9.4
G-Zak Irvin 6-6 Sr. 12.8
F-D.J. Wilson 6-10 Jr. 10.5
C-Moritz Wagner 6-10 So. 12.0
Key reserves– Duncan Robinson, F, 6-8, Sr., 7.9 ppg; Mark Donnal, C, 6-9, Sr., 4.2 ppg; Xavier Simpson, G, 6-0, Fr., 1.7 ppg; Ibi Watson, F, 6-5, Fr., 1.3 ppg.
Coach: John Beilein 504-309 (25th season)
Notable: Everyone knows now about the accident with Michigan’s team plane Wednesday that caused the Wolverines to evacuate and leave early the next morning before clobbering Illinois 75-55 in practice jerseys in the Big Ten tournament second round. Did you know that witnesses from the incident say the plane’s pilot “saved our lives,” according to reports. The pilot decided to veer off the runway instead of allowing the plane to go toward some buildings, per MLive.com. There were 109 people on board, including staff family members, band members and cheerleaders.
Fuller’s prediction (28-4 picks record): Michigan 78, Gophers 74. The Gophers will be motivated to play for Springs, who is out for the season. He’ll be on the bench cheering for them. But not having his vocal leadership on the court will be missed. Springs had no problem yelling at teammates and getting them to focus in Friday’s win against Michigan State. Michigan is probably exhausted physically from the plane scare and playing a third game in as many days. But my guess is that the Wolverines’ players are still on an emotional high from all of the drama and attention from their incident and winning two games. That could last for another day. Bottom line, Michigan’s offensive firepower will be too much to handle for the Gophers. But Pitino’s team should still have a chance at a No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament.