A couple days after Friday's win against Purdue Fort Wayne, senior Sean Sutherlin's scintillating baseline dunk was still a popular highlight on the Gophers men's basketball social media platforms.
That play put a stamp on Sutherlin's season-best 19-point performance off the bench in the 78-49 victory to help Gophers coach Ben Johnson improve to a 4-0 start in his first season.
Johnson was just as excited about a balanced effort in helping to erase a 10-point deficit in the first half against IPFW, including a season-high 30 bench points.
"Those guys were engaged, and it starts in practice," Johnson said last week. "Thankfully today we were able to get some more guys some minutes and some experience, but that doesn't happen if guys aren't locked in."
The Gophers, who play Wednesday night against Jacksonville at Williams Arena, will see a much tougher schedule stretch soon, including back-to-back road games at Pittsburgh on Nov. 30 and Mississippi State on Dec. 5.
Here are four things we've learned about Johnson's team during an undefeated start following the win against the Mastodons.
Sutherlin was the least heralded of Minnesota's Division I transfers arriving this year, especially after sitting out with a hip injury in 2020-21. But he's arguably the U's most efficient player so far.
Jamison Battle leads the Gophers in scoring (18.8). Payton Willis and Eric Curry have filled their leadership responsibilities as co-captains. Luke Loewe and E.J. Stephens have given Minnesota a lift on both ends of the floor.
But Sutherlin, a 6-5 senior and Irondale native, gets the most out of his time on the floor, especially offensively. He's fourth on the team in scoring (10.3) and rebounding (5.3), but Sutherlin only plays 18 minutes a game. He averages a team-high 22.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per 40 minutes.
The former New Hampshire star leads the Gophers in field goal% (63.2), two-point field goal% (66.7), free throws made (4.3), and free throws attempted (6.3).
Basically, Sutherlin waits for his chance to make an impact, which the Gophers desperately needed trailing 9-0 to open Friday's game against Purdue Fort Wayne. Sutherlin scored 11 of his 19 points in the first half.
Rebounding was his specialty at New Hampshire, nearly leading the America East two years ago. But Sutherlin's slashing ability make him a tough guard attacking the rim. He creates contact at such a high rate, ranking ninth nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, per Kenpom.com.
Ranking 355th nationally in bench minutes percentage (15.2), the Gophers desperately need Sutherlin to be a difference maker and top sixth man to continue to be successful.
Would the Gophers have beaten Princeton in double overtime to win the Asheville Championship without Willis' 29 points? Not likely. There was a reason he was named MVP.
But Battle also carried a heavy scoring load in the first three games this season. When both were struggling Friday in the first half (2-for-7 shooting combined), Johnson relied on others to take control of the game.
Sutherlin was a scoring spark off the bench, but Loewe and Stephens had their moments. Loewe scored eight of his season-best 12 points in the first half. And Stephens had 11 of his 14 points in the second half, including 3-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc.
The Gophers only use a seven-man rotation, so having four players score in double figures was impressive, especially since Willis wasn't one of them coming off a career game. Battle seems to always find his stroke eventually, finishing with 12 of his 13 points in the second half on 4-for-9 shooting.
After finishing last in the Big Ten in three-point shooting (28.4%) last season, Minnesota's fourth among conference teams at 37.6% through four games this year.
Defense creates offense
Minnesota opened the game against Purdue Fort Wayne shooting 1-for-9 from the field, but its defense created some easy looks to get the scoring going in the first half.
After falling behind 15-5, the Gophers forced three straight turnovers during a 10-0 run to get right back into the game. They finished the first half on a 26-11 run, forced 11 turnovers, and had five steals from Willis and Stephens combined.
In the second half, the Mastodons were held to just 25% shooting from the field (9-for-36), including 2-for-12 from the three-point line. Jalon Pipkins had 13 points of his 19 points in the first half. But Pipkins was just 2-for-6 from the field and committed three turnovers in the second half, which was partly due to Loewe's tough on-ball pressure.
The Gophers lead the Big Ten in three-point shooting defense (23.9%), ranking 21st nationally.
The only Big Ten team worst than the Gophers in rebounding margin is Nebraska early in the season at minus-7.2 boards per game, but even the Cornhuskers are better at offensive rebounding. And it's not even close.
The Gophers rank 357th out of 358 Division I teams in offensive rebounding percentage (11.3%) this season. And they're also 356th nationally in total offensive rebounds per game at 3.5.
Those disturbing numbers aside, Johnson has only seen his squad outrebounded once through four games, which came 39-36 Friday after IPFW's 12 offensive rebounds.
Minnesota has been able to hold its own on the glass by ranking first in the Big Ten and ninth nationally (30.5) in defensive rebounding.