The Gophers are recruiting the New York City area heavily under Richard Pitino and his staff. Along the way they’ve went head to head with Chris Mullin and his St. John’s program for players. The Gophers have won some battles, the Red Storm has won some battles as well.
Looking at the St. John’s roster you will see Shamorie Ponds who was a top 40 2016 recruit that Minnesota was heavily after but lost out on last fall when Ponds said yes to Coach Mullin. There is also Fort Wayne, Indiana guard Marcus LoVett who played with a Chicago AAU team and the Gophers had talks with him as well. Finally, 6-foot-6 sophomore guard Malik Ellison was a spring recruit that Minnesota was hard after for the 2015 class.
Minnesota has also won their share of battles. This year they signed New York area talents Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris who will be key members of Minnesota’s future backcourt. The Redmen were heavily after Minnesota’s Dupree McBrayer but Minnesota of course won that battle.
The Minnesota/St. John’s match-up is a part of the Gavitt Tip-Off Games which matches eight Big Ten teams against eight Big East games and will continue to do so through 2022. The games started Monday with Villanova vs Purdue and will continue through the Gopher/Red Storm match-up Friday night. The Big East holds a 0-0 edge in the series after last night’s three games.
St. John’s is 2-0 with wins over Bethune-Cookman (100-53) and Binghamton (77-61). Bethune-Cookman is expected to be a middle of the pack MEAC team while Binghamton is picked in the middle of the America East Conference. With UT-Arlington falling to Florida Gulf Coast by 13 last night the Gophers best win doesn’t seem to hold as much weight. Therefore I would say the early season results show that Minnesota and St. John’s should be two fairly matched teams.
Shamorie Ponds will have the attention of all Gopher fans and with good reason. He’s a player that talked about visiting Minnesota for months but just before taking his September trip in 2015 he committed to Coach Mullin. Ponds is giving St. John’s 14.5 points, 3.5 assists, and 6.5 boards in 28 minutes a game so far. He’s made all of his foul shots, 10 of 18 field goals, and 6 of 11 shots at the arc.
Speedy backcourt mate Marcus LoVett has been even better with 21 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game early in the year. He’s made half of his 16 treys, 14 of 23 shots overall, and all but one foul shot. Add in third leading scorer Federico Mussini’s 12.5 points and 6 of 9 shooting at the arc (a 6-foot-2 shooting guard from Italy) and you have a young, explosive backcourt.
St. John’s is a very young team playing seven underclassmen in their eight man rotation (two freshmen and five sophomores). They’ve been outstanding at the arc hitting 22 of 48 treys so far this season and they’ve turned their two opponents over a combined 39 times!
Through three games Minnesota has had outstanding scoring balance throughout their line-up. Five guys are currently averaging in double figures which represents the box scores well as the Gophers have had five, then six, and then five guys in double figures. The Gophers have dominated the glass 44 to 33 on average which is big for them as last year they were a minus six per game on the season.
Minnesota is only shooting 28.6 percent from the three-point line which must improve. St. John’s has done the opposite as they are hitting nearly 46 percent of their treys but they are even on the glass with some average low major basketball teams.
If a team wants to play with Minnesota they have to be able to match-up with the front line of center Reggie Lynch, power forward Jordan Murphy, PF/C Eric Curry, and wing Amir Coffey. The Redmen have the guard play but do they have the size?
Spanish 6-foot-11, 220 pound sophomore center Yankuba Sima started 25 games last year and has been solid for them so far. Sims dealt with a broken hand for a couple months as a frosh and still averaged seven and six last year (led the team in boards). Expect Malik Ellison and his 6-foot-6 frame to be matched-up with Coffey. Ellison is the son of Pervis Ellison while of course Coffey is the son of Richard Coffey.
From there the Red Storm have a long list of size that they will throw at the Gopher size. Junior Bashir Ahmed, a juco transfer, is 6-foot-7 210 pounds and was a first team junior college All –American a year ago because he put up 20 points and eight boards a game. Sophomore Tariq Owens, a Tennessee transfer, is 6-foot-11 200 pounds and is known for being an excellent shot blocker.
Sophomore Kassoum Yakwe is 6-foot-7 210 pounds and was named to the Big East All Freshmen team a year ago as he put up seven points and five boards a contest. Italian junior Amar Alibegovic stands 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds and is back with the team after wanting to transfer last spring. He played in all 32 games last year starting six.
Do the Redmen have the size to play with the Gophers? Without a doubt yes. In fact they may not have the stats the Gopher frontcourt players have so far, but there is more of them in numbers. Lynch will have to deal with Sima, Owens, and Alibegovic meaning Coach Chris Mullin has 15 fouls to use where as Reggie Lynch will have to be careful if his foul prone self wants to stay on the floor.
Those players won’t have the agility to defend Murphy but Kassoum Yakwe and Bashir Ahmed are 6-foot-7 agile talents that have length to bother Jordan and the agility to stay with him. The Red Storm have depth up front with five guys they will use (Sima, Ahmed, Owens, Yakwe, Alibegovic) where as Minnesota has been using three (Murphy, Lynch, and Curry) but they may have to go to 6-foot-11 Bakary Konate as well.
Whatever body will come to see is the guard play. Curry against Ellison will be good while McBrayer versus Ponds and Nate Mason against LoVett should be great. Add in Akeem Springs likely to see a lot of Mussini and we have a game with some outstanding match-ups.
LoVett (went to school at Morgan Park High in Illinois) was at St. John’s last year but had to sit out because of academics. He’s fully committed to schoolwork and the team now and his 6-foot speedy frame will be going at Nate Mason throughout the game. He’s two games into his career and has never played on the road so Mason has a serious experience edge.
Ponds will handle some but his long armed 6-foot-1 frame will be on the court running the wing when LoVett is controlling play. McBrayer’s length at 6-foot-5 has bothered many smaller opponents so far this year and Pitino will need that to continue. Ponds is deceptively quick and very crafty. Dupree has been scorching hot this year finishing at the arc some, and often hitting shots from mid-range and at the rim.
The Red Storm will be in position to compete with Minnesota up front which hasn’t been the case for a team this year. They have the guys to take it at Lynch and get him in foul trouble and they have the type of length that has bothered Jordan Murphy around the basket in the past. The Gophers have been outstanding on the glass but this game the margin will likely be close. If Murphy and/or Lynch are in foul trouble the Gophs could have frontcourt issues because St John’s uses five bigs quite evenly.
St. John’s is very good but very young in the backcourt. Minnesota has an experience edge with their back four.The Red Storm do shoot better though and the percentages aren’t even close. Both teams are playing their first high major competition of the season.
Who wins? Minnesota has the edge because they are the home team and they actually have more experience (they play three or four upperclassmen, St. John’s plays one or two). The Gophers have the predicted edge but foul trouble or a terrible shooting night could sway this to the visitors.
Minnesota 78 St. John’s 74.