Tuesday, April 9

Gophers holding their own in the paint could be difference vs. Penn State in Big Ten tourney opener


BIG TEN TOURNEY: GOPHERS MEN’S HOOPS VS PENN STATE

FULLER’S FOUR THINGS TO WATCH:

Curry vs. Penn State

The Gophers might have the thinnest frontcourt in the Big Ten, but that doesn’t mean senior big man Eric Curry hasn’t made a significant impact this season.

Curry’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points and 5.8 rebounds this season, including a career-high 22 points in a 76-70 win against Penn State on Feb. 12.

The Nittany Lions decided to test Curry’s jump shot that night – and he made them pay with 10-for-19 shooting from the field.

Curry hasn’t reached double figures in scoring since then, but he fought through illness and a shoulder injury in the last six games. The 6-9, 240-pound captain’s impact on both ends of the floor could be a deciding factor in Wednesday’s opening game against Penn State in the Big Ten tournament.

Penn State’s senior John Harrar had 15 points and 17 rebounds in Sunday’s loss against Rutgers. Harrar averaged 11 points and 9.5 rebounds in two games vs. Minnesota this season.

The second Curry vs. Harrar matchup was pretty one-sided. Harrar finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds in a 67-46 Penn State victory at home on Feb. 17. Curry was suffering from flu-like symptoms and had just one point on 0-for-6 shooting and three turnovers in 22 minutes. The Nittany Lions also outscored the Gophers 40-12 in points in the paint.

Charlie Daniels replaced Curry in the starting lineup four times this season, but he went scoreless with no rebounds in three minutes in last week’s 75-62 regular season-ending loss at Northwestern.

Jamison Battle has moved from undersized power forward to center in the last few games with Curry struggling to return to form. He had a career-high 39 points vs. Maryland and 20 points against Northwestern in the last two games.

But the Gophers were outscored 46-16 in points in the paint against Maryland and 26-20 against Northwestern.

Rebounding margin

The Gophers ranked last in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (minus-3.6) last season under Richard Pitino – and they’re even worse in Johnson’s first year.

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The Gophers are 13th in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (minus-6.7) overall and 356th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (17.8), per Kenpom.

Johnson’s philosophy is to give up crashing the offensive boards to hustle back for transition defense, so that can skew the offensive rebounding numbers (league-low 6.1 per game).

In Big Ten play, the rebounding margin between the Gophers and their opponents has been greater at minus-8.7, ranked last in conference play this year.

In a loss to the Buckeyes last month, the Gophers were outrebounded 48-22, which included 27 second-chance points on 20 offensive rebounds. That was the most offensive rebounds allowed since Iowa had 27 in a double overtime at Minnesota on Christmas Day 2020.

Battle leads the Gophers with 6.3 rebounds per game. He and Brandon Johnson’s team-high 6.3 rebound average last season were the lowest to lead the Gophers since 2011-12.

The Gophers outrebounded Nebraska 37-34 on Feb. 9, but they’ve been beaten on the boards in seven of the last eight games since then, including six games by double digits. Northwestern won the battle of the boards 48-31 in the final game of the regular season.

Defensive consistency

Johnson’s Gophers will need to return to having a defensive identity or risk a short trip at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.

Their best performances to finish the season were against Northwestern. They held the Wildcats to 32% shooting from the field and 2-for-8 three-pointers in the second half of Sunday’s loss in Evanston. They also held Northwestern to 37 percent shooting from the field, including 7-for-21 from three in a 17-point win at the Barn last month.

But the second half typically has been a struggle slowing down opponents. Ohio State and Penn State combined to shoot 61% from the field in blowout wins against the Gophers two weeks ago.

Even in a Feb. 12 win vs. Penn State at home, the Gophers allowed the Nittany Lions to score their second most points in conference play (70) and shoot 55% from the field, including 60% in the first half.

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Nebraska hadn’t won a Big Ten game all season going 0-12 before putting up 78 points on the Gophers after shooting 58 percent in the second half Feb. 9, including 61% inside the arc. The Cornhuskers scored 40 points in the paint and 21 fastbreak points as well.

In a Feb. 6 loss, the Gophers allowed Iowa to shoot 52% in the second half, so there’s been a downhill trend defensively for most of Big Ten play.

Minnesota’s last two home opponents, Wisconsin and Indiana shot 51% and 53% from the field, respectively. In fact, the Hoosiers shot 58% from the field in the second half Sunday.

During the Gophers’ 10-1 start this season they held opponents to 63.1 points per game, 24.8% shooting from three-point range, and 41% shooting from the field. Obviously, the competition wasn’t outstanding as a whole, but they did have wins against Western Kentucky, Princeton, Pittsburgh, Michigan, and Mississippi State.

Three-point threat

Last season, the Gophers shot a program-low 28.4% from three-point range, but they’ve made a jump to 37.1% overall and 36.7% in league games this season, both ranked third in the Big Ten.

The Gophers’ best three-point performance previously this season was going 13-for-24 in a Jan. 22 win against Rutgers. Willis had a career-high 32 points on 8-for-13 shooting from three in that game.

Willis leads the Big Ten in three-point accuracy overall at 43.1% and ranks tied for second in threes made per game (2.6). Stephens is shooting 38.7% from three this season. Battle, the U’s leading scorer at 17.4 points, ranks tied for second in the Big Ten in three-pointers per game (2.6) and shoots 36.5% overall from three.

GAME INFO

Time: approx 7:25 p.m. CT, Wednesday. Where: Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Line: Minnesota 3.5-point underdog. Series: Minnesota leads the series 40-13, which includes falling 67-46 on Feb. 17. TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: BTN-plus. Radio: 100.3 KFAN

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (13-16, 4-16 in conference)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

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G – Payton Willis 6-4 200 Sr. 16.1

G – Luke Loewe 6-4 190 Sr. 8.3

G – E.J. Stephens 6-3 190 Sr. 10.6

F – Jamison Battle 6-7 225 So. 17.4

F – Eric Curry 6-9 245 Sr. 7.6

Key reserves – Sean Sutherlin, G, 6-5, Sr., 7.1 ppg; Charlie Daniels, F, 6-9, Sr., 1.5 ppg; Treyton Thompson, F, 6-11, Fr., 1.9 ppg.

Coach: Ben Johnson 13-16 (1st season)

Notable: Twelve out of Minnesota’s 16 losses have been against teams in the NET’s top 50, including seven games against currently ranked opponents. … Junior forwards Parker Fox (Northern State transfer) and Isaiah Ihnen have been out for the year after offseason knee surgery. Fox, who tore his ACL and MCL in late March, has fully recovered and been cleared to practice with the Gophers. But both Fox and Ihnen will still sit out this season.

PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS (12-16, 7-13)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Dallion Johnson 6-3 So. 3.7

G – Jalen Pickett 6-4 Sr. 12.8

F – Myles Dread 6-4 Sr. 6.1

F – Seth Lundy 6-6 Jr. 12.4

F – John Harrar 6-9 Sr. 10.5

Reserves – Sam Sessoms, G, 6-0, Sr., 11.4 ppg; Greg Lee, F, 6-9, Sr., 7.1 ppg; Jameam Cornwall, G, 6-0, Sr., 2.2 ppg; Jalanni White, F, 6-8, Sr., 2.3 ppg.

Coach: Micah Shrewsberry 10-12 (1st season)

Notable: The Nittany Lions won three of four games in February, including Michigan State and the Gophers. But falling 59-58 Sunday against Rutgers made it three straight losses to finish the regular season. Penn State is 0-4 against the Gophers in the Big Ten tournament, including a 77-72 overtime loss in their last meeting in 2019… Western Michigan transfer Greg Lee, who averages 7.1 points, missed the two games against the Gophers this season with a foot injury, but he returned on Feb. 27 and played the final three games of the regular season.

Fuller’s score prediction (Picks record: 20-9): Penn State 70, Gophers 67.

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