GOPHERS MEN'S HOOPS VS. RUTGERS
FULLER'S FOUR THINGS TO WATCH:
Center of attention
Not many Big Ten teams have a 7-footer on the bench who could make an instant impact after playing sparse minutes all season.
Treyton Thompson did exactly that in last Sunday's 81-71 loss against Iowa. The freshman had a season-high eight points in 11 minutes after sitting the entire first half.
Out of all the players who saw the court, Thompson was the only one with a positive overall impact at plus-11. And he helped the Gophers nearly erase a 23-point deficit with a 31-11 run in the second half against the Hawkeyes.
Thompson and freshman guard Abdoulaye Thiam have both been hoping for more opportunities to play in the Big Ten, but Thiam's position is the deepest on the team.
First-year coach Ben Johnson doesn't have depth in the frontcourt. Senior backup big man Charlie Daniels will start again in place of captain Eric Curry, who will miss his second game Saturday against Rutgers with a left ankle injury.
Daniels finished with four points, five rebounds, three assists, and two blocks in 28 minutes, but the Gophers were minus-19 with him on the court. Thompson played more than Daniels at center in the second half when they went to a zone defense.
"It just takes time," Johnson said on Thompson. "He understands that. He's put himself in position because he's gotten better. He's on scout team and he's worked hard."
Curry's career-high averages of 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 28.3 minutes per game doesn't tell the whole story of his importance. He was the U's only returning player and inspirational leader coming off three major injuries in his career.
"EC's a big piece, but everybody has to step up a little bit," Johnson said after Curry suffered the injury late in the loss in East Lansing.
In their last game, the Gophers were outplayed inside with the Hawkeyes outscoring them 52-32 in points in the paint, including Keegan Murry and Filip Rebraca combining for 37 points, 22 rebounds, and four blocks.
Rutgers has talented 6-11 sophomore Cliff Omoruyi, who has grabbed double digit rebounds in five of his last six games, including a career-high 14 rebounds in a win Wednesday against Iowa.
Rutgers senior Ron Harper Jr. is one of the best wing players in the nation and not just the Big Ten.
But it's easy for him to get overlooked in the same league where Wisconsin's Johnny Davis and Iowa's Keegan Murray are national player of the year and All-American candidates.
The Gophers are without their leading scorer Jamison Battle on Saturday, which will make for a difficult time handling Harper, who has saved his best for league play.
The Scarlet Knights have won five games already in the Big Ten with Harper ranked fourth in the league in scoring with 19.6 points per game. He's also scorching hot and league-high 63.9% shooting from three-point range (23-for-36) and 90.3% (28-for-31) shooting on free throws.
Harper exploded offensively with games of 29, 30, and 31 in wins against Nebraska, Purdue, and Maryland this season, so Steve Pikiell's team will again look to him for the spark Saturday.
The Gophers were the worst team in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (minus-3.6) last season – and they're close to the same spot in Johnson's first year.
Curry is the U's leading rebounder at 6.8 per game, but even with him they ranked 13th in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (minus-10.3) and 356th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (18.0), per Kenpom.
Johnson's philosophy is to give up crashing the offensive boards for better transition defense, so that can skew the offensive rebounding numbers (7.7 per game).
In last week's loss at Michigan State, the Gophers grabbed 12 offensive rebounds and were only outrebounded 33-32, but they gave up 15 offensive boards against the Hawkeyes last weekend. That resulted in being outscored 17-3 in second-chance points.
Defense was something important to the Gophers' identity in Johnson's first season, but they've struggled to guard the three-point line as well in conference play.
The Gophers are still ranked first in the Big Ten overall in three-point shooting defense at 27.4%, but there has been a big difference against league opponents.
In the Dec. 11 upset in Ann Arbor, the Gophers held the Wolverines to 3-for-18 three-point shooting. But Michigan State twice, Illinois, Indiana shot 42.5% (31-for-73) from beyond the arc. The U's defense finally got much better on the perimeter last Sunday with Iowa only going 5-for-22 from long distance.
Johnson's Gophers also have to shoot better than 27.8% (32-for-115) in conference play from three-point territory, which is even worse than last season (27.9%) in the Big Ten.
The Scarlet Knights resemble what the Gophers would like to be entering Saturday ranked first in Big Ten games in three-point shooting (41.3%) and second in three-point defense (28.4%).
Time: 11 a.m. CT, Saturday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Minnesota 3.5-point favorite. Series: Minnesota leads the series 8-6 but dropped last game 77-70 in overtime in Minneapolis on March 6, 2021. TV: BTN. Online/Live video: BTN-plus. Radio: 100.3 KFAN
MINNESOTA GOPHERS (10-5, 1-5 in conference)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Payton Willis 6-4 195 Sr. 15.5
G – Sean Sutherlin 6-5 200 Sr. 7.7
G – Luke Loewe 6-4 190 Sr. 6.5
F – Treyton Thompson 6-11 210 Fr. 1.3
F – Charlie Daniels 6-9 230 Sr. 1.9
Key reserves– Abdoulaye Thiam, G, 6-3, Fr., 1.3 ppg; Danny Ogele, F, 6-7, Sr., 0.0 ppg.
Coach: Ben Johnson 10-5 (1st season)
Notable: Two assistant coaches and four players were sidelined in last Sunday's loss against the Hawkeyes, including Curry (ankle), Sean Sutherlin, Danny Ogele, and walk-on Joey Kern. Sutherlin's return would be critical as the team's top scorer off the bench. … The Gophers have lost four straight games against Rutgers, including for the first time ever at Williams Arena in overtime last season. … Junior forwards Parker Fox (Northern State transfer) and Isaiah Ihnen are sidelined indefinitely after offseason knee surgery. Fox, who tore his ACL and MCL in late March, has been warming up before games. But it still appears that both Fox and Ihnen will sit out this season.
RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS (11-6, 5-2)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Geo Baker 6-4 185 Sr. 10.9
G – Paul Mulcahy 6-6 213 Jr. 7.1
F – Caleb McConnell 6-7 200 Sr. 6.7
F – Ron Harper Jr. 6-6 245 Sr. 16.5
C – Cliff Omoruyi 6-11 240 So. 11.1
Reserves – Mawot Mag, F, 6-7, So., 3.8 ppg; Aundre Hyatt, G, 6-6, Jr., 5.6 ppg; Jaden Jones, F, 6-8, Fr., 4.4 ppg; Ralph Agee, F, 6-8, Sr., 2.8 ppg.
Coach: Steve Pikiell 288-257 (18th season)
Notable: The Scarlet Knights have one of the top scorers in the Big Ten with Harper, but they're actually one of the top defensive teams in the nation. Pikiell's squad ranks 30th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Kenpom.com. In Wednesday's 48-46 win, Rutgers recorded a school-record 10 blocks and held Iowa to 27.9% field goal shooting. The Hawkeyes also scored fewer than 50 points in a game for the first time since 2019.
Fuller's score prediction (Picks record: 11-4): Rutgers 68, Gophers 65.