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Gophers men’s basketball vs. Penn State

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

Murphy vs. Stevens – Grab some popcorn and get seated early Thursday to get ready for this matchup up between two of the best power forwards in the country. Jordan Murphy and Lamar Stevens flip flopped as All-Big Ten first teamers by media (Murphy) and coaches (Stevens). Obviously, Murphy needs no introduction. We’ll have to see where he eventually is considered among the greatest Gophers ever. The school’s rebounding king recently passed Kevin McHale for fifth all-time in U scoring. Where his legacy can reach new heights will be determined if Murphy can lead his team to postseason success in the Big Ten tournament and NCAA tournament. In his last meeting with Penn State on Jan. 19, Murphy was a monster on the boards tying his career high with 21 rebounds, to go with 19 points. It was the third time he nearly hit the 20-point, 20-rebound mark in his career. As much as the All-Big Ten senior captain dominated the glass, Stevens got the better of Murphy offensively with 27 points, including 17 points in the first half. Stevens, who averages 19.8 points per game, was drilling three-pointers, attacking the basket and getting to the foul line. One of the best highlights of Murphy’s career was a putback dunk on his own miss over Stevens in the second half earlier this season. Stevens nearly helped the Nittany Lions steal a road win that night, but he missed a baseline jumper as time expired. Is it safe to say the player with the bigger performance between Murphy and Stevens leads his team to victory to open the Big Ten tournament? Hard to bet against that.

Freshmen impact – The Gophers and Nittany Lions didn’t have representation on the All-Big Ten freshman team Monday, but they definitely had players deserving mention among the best freshmen in the league this season. You could argue that Minnesota’s starting center Daniel Oturu was the biggest all-freshman team omission since he led his counterparts in rebounds, blocks, field goal percentage and double-doubles. Oturu’s 10.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks were the best numbers for a 6-10 freshman center probably since the Big Man U days with Kevin McHale and Mychal Thompson. Not far behind his impact, Gabe Kalscheur was Minnesota’s best three-point shooter (42 percent) and perimeter defender. Penn State’s Myles Dread also leads his team with 67 three-pointers this season (first to achieve that since 2004-05), which is the second most for any Big Ten freshman behind Kalscheur’s 68. Dread isn’t even the top scoring freshman on his own team, either. That distinction belongs to guard Rasir Bolton, who is Penn State’s second leading scorer at 11.9 points per game. Bolton and Dread have a combined 119 three-point field goals this season.

Defensive identity – Richard Pitino described this as a weird season. The Gophers have some really good wins to make them in contention for the NCAA tournament. They also have a lot of losses that were so close to being great opportunities to build their resume. What was the biggest factor in those games? Pitino says his players let poor offense affect their defense. Minnesota becomes a much different and better team when defense becomes the identity, similar to when the program made the NCAA tournament two years ago. The Gophers adjusted defensive efficiency is 37th in the country, per KenPom. Problem is that Penn State’s defense is even better at 24th in the nation. The Nittany Lions led the Big Ten in league games with 7.7 steals per game, while also forcing 13.1 turnovers per game (2nd in the league). Their weakness appears to be guarding the three-point line ranking 13th in the Big Ten in three-point defense (37.2 percent).

GAME INFO

Time: 6 p.m. CT, Thursday. Where: United Center. Line: Gophers 2.0-point underdog. Series: Minnesota leads the series 35-14, includes winning the last meeting 65-64 on Jan. 19 in Minneapolis.TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: BTNPlus Radio: 100.3 FM.

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (19-12, 9-11 in Big Ten)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G- Amir Coffey 6-8 Jr. 16.0

G- Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Sr. 9.1

G- Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 Fr. 10.1

F- Jordan Murphy 6-7 Sr. 14.5

C- Daniel Oturu 6-10 Fr. 10.8

Reserves– Matz Stockman, C, 7-0, Sr., 3.0 ppg; Brock Stull, G, 6-4, Sr., 1.4 ppg; Jarvis Omersa, F, 6-7, Fr., 0.8 ppg. Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, So., 4.3 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Jr., 1.8 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 127-104 (7th season)

Notable: Redshirt sophomore big man Eric Curry had surgery Wednesday to repair ligament damage with his right foot. Curry, who averaged 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in 18.7 minutes this year, was lost for the season after suffering the injury in practice last week … Senior center Matz Stockman replaced Curry in the rotation in the 73-69 win last week over No. 11 Purdue. The 7-foot Stockman had nine points, six rebounds and a career-high seven blocks … The Gophers are 3-0 against Penn State in the Big Ten tournament, including a 63-56 victory in Indianapolis in the 7-10 seed game in Pitino’s first season in 2013-14.

PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS (14-17, 7-13)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G- Myles Dread 6-4 Fr. 8.5

G- Jamari Wheeler 6-1 So. 3.3

G- Josh Reaves 6-5 Sr. 10.5

F- Lamar Stevens 6-8 Jr. 19.8

C- John Harrar 6-9 So. 3.3

Key reserves– Rasir Bolton, G, 6-2, Fr., 11.9 ppg; Mike Watkins, C, 6-9, Jr., 7.5 ppg; Myreon Jones, G, 6-3, Fr., 4.0 ppg; Trent Buttrick, F, 6-8, So., 1.8 ppg.

Coach: Patrick Chambers 169-166 (10th season)

Notable: The Nittany Lions, who have won seven of their last 10 games, are favored by two points Thursday against the Gophers. They’ve been the second hottest team in the Big Ten in the last 10 games (only Purdue’s 8-2 record was better) … Penn State ranks 49th in the NCAA’s NET rankings, which just barely places the Nittany Lions in the Quadrant 1 category for an opponent's win (neutral site 1-50 NET rank).

Fuller’s prediction: Gophers 71, Penn State 67. The Gophers are likely still in line for an NCAA tournament at-large bid Sunday even with a loss, but they don’t want to leave it up to chance. Winning for the fourth time in Pitino’s six seasons on the opening day of the Big Ten tournament should put them solidly in the field of 68. Coffey and Murphy need to show the NBA scouts in attendance they deserve to be looked at seriously for workouts this spring.