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Gophers a rare favorite in IU matchup tonight

You would never have predicted it early in the season but Minnesota is the clear favorite tonight to knock off a struggling Indiana team. We'll run down why the Gophers represent a big challenge tonight for the Hoosiers.

Minnesota is hot, Indiana is not. That's why many are anticipating a young Minnesota team will handle Indiana tonight at "The Barn."

Of course "The Barn" is Williams Arena in Minneapolis, the  conference's oldest arena  (opened in 1928). It's always been a difficult place for any visiting team.

Last year's Indiana team did manage to pull out a 70-63 win at Williams Arena and the Hoosiers own three straight over Richard Pitino's team. But this is a new year and the roles have been somewhat reversed.  Especially so when it comes to February play. Indiana has lost three straight games and five of six. Minnesota, on the other hand, is coming in with a three game winning streak. 

That Gopher streak has Minnesota (18-7, 6-6) back into many NCAA tournament projections. Indiana (15-11, 5-8) is out of most forecasts now and will likely need to win tonight's game to entertain realistic hopes of making the Big Dance.

"They’ll be very confident at home, they’re on a three-game win streak," Indiana coach Tom Crean said this week. "They play very hard and we have to find some things we can exploit."

While this is a younger team with three of the top five scorers being freshman or sophomores, a pair of transfers have added key experience and shored up a couple weaknesses. Grad transfer Akeem Springs is averaging 10.2 points and the former UW-Milwaukee guard leads the team in both made 3-pointers (57) and in 3-pointer percentage (40.7). Former Illinois State player Reggie Lynch (8.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg) has beefed up the frontline with his 6-foot-10, 260-pound frame. Lynch leads the Big Ten in shot blocking, averaging over three per game in both league and non-conference action.

On the perimeter 6-foot-2 junior Nate Mason (14.5 ppg) has become a better playmaker each season. He's averaging 5.3 assists, second in the league behind Northwestern's Bryant McIntosh.Six-foot-five sophomore Dupree McBrayer started till six games ago and sees 28 minutes a game. Last year he played because of his defense and this season he's blossomed offensively, averaging 10.6 points a contest.

Helping at both guard and forward is this team's most talented player, 6-foot-8 freshman Amir Coffey. A five-star prospect before injuries sidelined him in his prep career, Coffey is in the running for top freshman in the league, averaging 12.2 points and 3.3 assists. The son of former Gopher forward Richard Coffey is probably Indiana's toughest match-up tonight.

Indiana assistant coach Chuck Martin spoke yesterday to the talent Pitino now has on the perimeter.

"(Springs) gives them a different option. He’s a big, strong guard that can go to the low post and make open shots. And then Coffey, the freshman lefty with great size. He can shoot the 3-pointer. He does a tremendous job of getting to the rim. I think those two guys, and the improvement of McBrayer along with the additional size, takes enormous amounts of pressure off of Nate Mason. I think a year ago, he felt the pressure to have to manufacture points for Minnesota and now this year they have more options on the perimeter and on the block.”

If that's not enough the best player of late for this team is 6-foot-6, 240-pound sophomore forward Jordan Murphy (10.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg).  His scoring has been down from last year when he earned All-Freshman honors in the Big Ten. That may be in the past because Murphy was on fire last week in wins over Iowa and Rutgers. He was 18-for-28 overall those games, averaging 21.0 points and 15.0 rebounds. That earned him co-Big Ten Player of the Week with Michigan senior Derrick Walton.

Also on the frontline is 6-foot-11, 240-pound Bakary Konate. He's not an offensive threat but along with Lynch and Murphy, will block shots. As a team, Minnesota is averaging 7.2 blocks a game in league play. The next best in the Big Ten is Maryland at just 4.7.

"The biggest thing I have seen on film is their size," Martin said. "A year ago, they didn’t have as much depth at the center or forward spot. Now, with the addition of Lynch as a transfer, it certainly helps Murphy, who was a tremendous all-freshman candidate last year. And now having Konate coming off the bench gives them unbelievable depth on the front line."

Oddsmakers have Minnesota as about a 5.5 point favorite tonight.

This is a 9:00 p.m. ET tip on the Big Ten Network with Cory Provus and Jon Crispin on the call. For more broadcast information and details on the Gophers, check out the Hoosier Game Day page.

Projected starters:

No Pos Name Ht/Wt Class Home PPG Other
2 G Nate Mason 6-2/190 Junior Decatur, Ga. 14.5 5.3 apg
00 G Akeem Springs 6-4/220 Senior Waukegan, Ill. 10.2 3.4 rpg
5 G Amir Coffey 6-8/195 Frosh Hopkins, Minn. 12.2 3.3 apg
3 F Jordan Murphy 6-6/240 Soph San Antonio, Tex. 10.3 8.0 rpg
22 C Reggie Lynch 6-10/260 Junior Edina, Minn. 8.3 3.2 bpg

Key reserves:

No Pos Name Ht/Wt Class Home PPG Other
1 G Dupree McBrayer 6-5/190 Soph Queens, NY 10.6 2.8 apg
21 C Bakary Konate 6-11/235 Junior Mamako, Mali 1.9 2.9 rpg
24 F Eric Curry 6-9/235 Frosh Memphis, Tenn. 6.0 5.6 rpg
32 F Ahmad Gilbert 6-6/205 Soph Philadelphia, Pa. 1.8 1.0 rpg

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