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Toughness factor

The same two words were repeated after every road loss by Richard Pitino and the Gophers players this season: toughness and physicality. They just weren't tough enough and didn't match the physicality of Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan in three road losses by an average margin of 21 points. How can a team become tougher? Well, Pitino talked about physical toughness being measured by how his team rebounds. They were outrebounded by 18 at Illinois and nine at Michigan in Wednesday's 82-57 loss.

There is more to toughness than what showed up in the rebounding stats, though. Being the tougher and more physical team often means being aggressive, attacking the basket and finishing through contact. Sometimes officials swallow their whistles and let teams play. The Gophers against Michigan attempted a season-low six free throws, but that wasn't just a season-low. It was the fewest free throws attempted in a Gophers game since Feb. 21, 2015 in a loss at Wisconsin when Pitino's team attempted just one free throw – and missed it. Yes, you read that right.Going from leading the nation with 21.6 free throws made and 28.6 free throws attempted to just six Wednesday night was example enough for Pitino to be furious at his team's lack of aggressiveness.

Toughness also can mean hunkering down defensively and making opponents earn their baskets. But Illinois shot 53.1% (34-64) from the field against the Gophers, including 61.3% in the second half. The Illini also scored 48 points in the paint. Wisconsin shot 50.8% (30-59) from the field, including 65% in the second half. The Badgers also scored 40 points in the paint. Michigan shot 56.9 percent (33-58) from the field, including 62.1% in second half. The Wolverines also scored 46 points in the paint.

How will the Gophers rebound, attack the basket and defend against the Hawkeyes on Sunday? No matter how well they shoot the ball, the toughness factor could be the difference to earning the first road win moving forward.

Size matters

At 7-feet and 235 pounds, Gophers junior Liam Robbins is one of five starting centers in the Big Ten standing 6-11 or taller. So far this season, Robbins has ruled undersized big men going up against Ohio State and Michigan State, which included his 27 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks in the 17-point win against the Buckeyes at home. But he hasn't been as effective against post players his size or bigger, especially on the road. The Drake transfer is averaging just 9.0 points on 35.7% shooting from the field, 44.4 percent from the foul line and has four personal fouls per game in three road games this season.

Robbins' streak of eight straight double figure scoring games came to an end in Wednesday's loss at Michigan. He finished with five points on 2-for-9 shooting, but he only played nine minutes in the second half resting a leg injury. Pitino said Saturday that Robbins should be healthy to play in the rematch against the Hawkeyes. But he'll need help defending against Iowa's size in the post.

Hawkeyes 6-11, 260-pound All-American Luka Garza had 32 points and 17 rebounds in Minnesota's 102-95 overtime on Christmas Day at Williams Arena. Illinois' 7-foot, 290-pound Kofi Cockburn (33 points and 13 rebounds), Wisconsin's 248-pound Micah Potter (18 points and 11 rebounds), and recently Michigan's 7-1, 255-pound Hunter Dickinson (28 points and eight rebounds) were all dominant on the block against the Gophers. In those four games, the opposing centers averaged 27.8 points and 12.3 rebounds. Meanwhile, Robbins averaged 11.3 points and five rebounds vs. Cockburn, Potter, Garza, and Dickinson. It was a tough task even for the Big Ten's leading shot blocker.

Pitino said the Gophers can't leave the responsibility for post defense on Robbins' shoulders alone. They didn't when Robbins got into foul trouble in the first meeting with Iowa. They relied on 6-9, 240-pound senior Eric Curry and 6-10, 240-pound sophomore Sam Freeman to frustrate Garza together to hold him to five points in the first half that day. Freeman played a bit more recently with four points and four rebounds in 11 minutes in the second half at Michigan.

Rebounding margin

The Gophers are still last in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (minus-1.4). They won the battle of the boards for three straight games vs. Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. But that wasn't enough to overcome being dominated on the glass by Illinois (minus-18), Iowa (minus-17) and Michigan (minus-9) in their other three Big Ten games. Robbins leads the Gophers (7.3) in rebounding this season and picked up his first double figure rebounding game this season with 14 against the Buckeyes. But this isn't like years past when Jordan Murphy (twice) and Daniel Oturu (last season) led the Big Ten in rebounding. They were good for 10-12 rebounds every night. Now it has to be more of a team effort.

The Gophers will need their frontcourt besides Robbins to contribute more on the glass in order to keep Iowa from dominating the battle of the boards Sunday. The Hawkeyes grabbed 27 offensive rebounds in their overtime loss against the Gophers. Garza had as many offensive boards (11) as Minnesota's entire team that day, which nearly helped Iowa get the win in regulation.

Free-throw fancy

The Gophers currently rank No. 1 in the Big Ten, but they dropped to second nationally in free throws made per game (20.4) after the six free throws vs. Michigan. This season is still a major upgrade from last year when they ranked 285th nationally with 11.5 foul shots made per game. They're getting to the line nearly twice as often and converting 75.9 percent, ranked fourth overall in the Big Ten. Getting to the line is obviously a strength for Pitino's team. Getting outshot at the line isn't always detrimental. They were 5-14 when outshot by their opponent on free throws last season. They're 2-1 in the same situation this season in wins vs. Iowa and Michigan State. But the Gophers only shot 6-for-6 from the line in Wednesday's loss, which was obviously too far from their season average to make up the difference.

Carr, who shoots 79.8 percent on free throws, leads the Big Ten with 75 made free throws and tied with Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis for the most made free throws per game (5.8) among Big Ten players this season. Carr was just 2-for-2 on free throws against Michigan on Wednesday. Robbins shoots 71.1 percent from the foul line and ranks fourth in the Big Ten with 54 made free throws, but he was one of three U starters not to attempt a free throw against the Wolverines.

The Hawkeyes, who rank third in the Big Ten and 26th nationally with 17 free throws made per game, could've beat the Gophers in regulation Dec. 25, but Joe Toussaint missed two foul shots with 14 seconds left. That left the window open for Carr's game-tying three-pointer. And the rest is history.


Time:1:30 p.m. CT, Sunday.Where:Carver-Hawkeye Arena.Line:Minnesota 9.5-point underdogs.Series:Minnesota leads the series 102-90, including winning the last meeting 102-95 in overtime at home on Dec. 25.TV: Big Ten Network.Online/Live video: BTN-Plus.Radio:100.3 KFAN.



Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Marcus Carr 6-2 195 Jr.21.5

G – Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 200 Jr. 10.0

G – Both Gach 6-6 185 Jr. 10.3

F – Brandon Johnson 6-8 220 Sr. 7.8

C – Liam Robbins 7-0 235 Jr. 13.5

Key reserves– Eric Curry, F-C, 6-9, Sr., 3.9 ppg; Jamal Mashburn Jr., G, 6-2, Fr., 5.0 ppg; Isaiah Ihnen, F, 6-9, So., 2.8 ppg; Tre' Williams, G, 6-5, So., 3.4 ppg.

Coach:Richard Pitino 155-125 (9th season overall)

Notable: Western Michigan graduate transfer Brandon Johnson missed the Dec. 10 win vs. UMKC with a left ankle injury, but he returned the next game in the Big Ten opener at Illinois. Johnson's breakout performance came soon after with a season-high 26 points on 8-for-9 shooting from three-point range in the 102-95 overtime win vs. Iowa on Christmas Day. The Gophers were 17-for-43 from three, setting a team record for attempts from beyond the arc. Johnson's three-point percentage in that game was a team record and he tied the single-game record for threes made. The Chicago native is shooting 39.3% from three this season, but he hasn't been able to come close to duplicating that one record-setting performance from three. He shot 2-for-11 on threes in the seven games before Iowa. Johnson's shot 1-for-9 from long distance in the four games since playing the Hawkeyes. The Gophers shot 27-for-68 (39.7%) from three in back-to-back wins vs. St. Louis and Iowa, but they were 74-for-264 (28%) the rest of the season so far. Was that last Hawkeyes win an aberration from the three-point line? We'll see Sunday in Iowa City.

NO. 5 IOWA HAWKEYES (10-2, 4-1)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Jordan Bohannon 6-1 175 Sr. 9.8

G – CJ Fredrick 6-3 195 So. 10.2

G – Joe Wieskamp 6-6 212 Jr. 13.8

G – Connor McCaffery 6-5 205 3.3

C – Luka Garza 6-11 265 Sr. 27.2

Key reserves– Jack Nunge, F-C, 6-11, Sr., 7.1 ppg; Patrick McCaffery, F, 6-9, So., 6.4 ppg; Keegan Murray, F, 6-9, Fr., 7.0 ppg; Joe Toussaint, G, 6-1, So., 4.6 ppg.

Coach: Fran McCaffery 455-322 (23rd season)

Notable:The Hawkeyes hasn't lost since falling in overtime at Minnesota on Christmas Day. After beating ranked opponents Northwestern and Rutgers, Iowa won at Maryland by 22 points on Thursday. McCaffery's team leads the Big Ten and ranks second only to No. 1 Gonzaga nationally with 92.4 points per game. The Hawkeyes, who have an eight-game win streak against ranked opponents at home, haven't lost in Iowa City to the Gophers since 2015. Garza has five 30-point games this season, but his last one was with 32 points against Minnesota, including 27 points in the second half and overtime combined.

Fuller's score prediction (Picks record 9-4):Iowa 84, Gophers 76.