A 12-1 non-conference record was a goal, and that was accomplished. Big applause for Richard Pitino and the Minnesota Gophers. That applause was stopped a game later when a banged up Michigan State squad defeated the Gophers in overtime at Williams Arena. That was a game Minnesota was supposed to win and instantly the common sports fan in Minnesota wrote off this basketball team once again.
Why? For one fans have seen the 12-1 non-conference record before. It was a specialty of Tubby Smith as Gopher coach soon to be followed by a six or eight win league season (twice it was a 6-12 mark, once 8-10). Two, this is a Gopher squad that won eight games last year so believers were few. Finally three, Minnesota is playing four of their next five games on the road and that’s a stretch that hasn’t inspired many believers.
When Richard Pitino met the media before leaving for Purdue this weekend he spoke in detail about how talented Purdue’s frontcourt of Caleb Swanigan (a 6-foot-9, 250 pound sophomore) and Isaac Haas (a 7-foot-2, 282 pound junior) is. “NBA Future” was the phrase used although neither is projected as a first or second round pick in next year’s draft at the moment (right now you have to look as far down as 17th to find a projected guy that’s not a freshman in college or from overseas). That said both Haas and Swanigan have been outstanding.
Swanigan is playing 30 minutes a night scoring 17.8 points per game with 12.4 rebounds a contest shooting 57 percent from the floor. He’s also shooting 46 percent from the arc on his two three attempts a game and makes 77 percent of his foul shots. Throw in three assists a game and we are talking potential league MVP candidate.
Then you have Haas who in 22 minutes a night is scoring 14.4 points per game and collecting between 5-6 boards a contest. Isaac is not only 7-foot-2 (that is 86 inches tall by the way) but he shoots 62.5 percent from the floor and 70.5 percent from the foul line.
There is more good news Gopher fans (sarcasm), when one of these talented monsters is sitting, the other is playing with 6-foot-8, 225 pound small forward Vincent Edwards who will play some four as well. Edwards is the third leading Purdue scorer at 12 points per game with five boards in 28 minutes a game. Edwards shoots 50 percent from the floor, makes 47 percent of his three three-point attempts each night, and makes 78 percent of his free throws.
More good news for Gopher fans (heavy sarcasm) is that last game Michigan State’s Nick Ward had 22 points, ten rebounds, and five blocks against Minnesota’s trio of players that played the five (Reggie Lynch, Bakary Konate, and Eric Curry). The Gopher group combined for 9 points, 13 rebounds, and five blocks. Obviously it wasn’t enough.
Gopher starting junior center Reggie Lynch still leads the Big Ten in blocked shots (3.3 a game) but Lynch has been awful as of late in all other areas. In the last three games Lynch has played only 38 minutes combined (constant foul trouble is the reason) making four shots in those three games grabbing only seven rebounds total and scoring just 11 points overall. That is a three game average of 13 minutes, 3.7 points, and 2.3 rebounds for their starting center! Not good.
It helps that Minnesota sophomore power forward Jordan Murphy has had an excellent four game stretch highlighted by 21 rebounds against Michigan State (the highest individual game total for a Gopher in 51 years) and double figures in all those games. Murphy is at 10.6 points and 8.5 rebounds a game boosting those totals after a couple tough games in early December.
Can the Gophers get a break from Purdue’s backcourt? Not so much. The trio of six foot freshman Carsen Edwards, 6-foot-4 junior shooting guard Dakota Mathias, and junior point guard PJ Thompson score 11, 10, and 7.5 points per game respectively. Edwards is an explosive scoring young player who has been a bit inconsistent with his touch (39 percent overall but always a threat).
Mathias takes most of his shots at the arc where he’s making 52 percent of his 4-5 threes taken a game. Thompson is an improved shooter making 39 percent of his treys plus both Thompson and Mathias are ball control creators who have combined for 106 assists (53 each) and only 26 turnovers for the year.
Minnesota guards Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer far outplayed Mathias and Thompson last year when Purdue squeaked out a 68-64 win at Williams Arena. Mason was remarkable with 15 points and 12 assists while McBrayer had a breakout freshman game with 13 points and five assists. Thompson scored one point with one assist in 25 minutes against Mason while Mathias was 2 for 7 for the field scoring five points against McBrayer.
Haas only had one score in nine minutes against Bakary Konate in that 2016 game while the now Gopher junior had eight points and seven boards. Bakary was solid against AJ Hammons too until later (Hammons had 16 points on 14 shots). The guy that destroyed Minnesota? That was Vincent Edwards. Edwards came into that game ridiculed for his poor play in previous games and then broke out with 24 points making four treys.
Purdue (12-2 on the year by the way) lost to Louisville earlier this year and of course the coach of Louisville is Rick Pitino, father of Richard Pitino the Gopher coach. The Louisville defense forced Purdue into 35 percent shooting for the game and most of that was inside the arc where Purdue made just 9 of 30 shots. Louisville won the boards 36-34 and forced 17 turnovers from Purdue. Last year when the Gophers nearly beat Purdue they had only ten turnovers to the 15 of Purdue.
The versatile Swanigan at 6-foot-8 against the explosive Murphy at 6-foot-6. It’s the first match-up I think of when evaluating this game. Swanigan does a lot of things and if he was being defended by the early November Jordan Murphy I would give all the edge to the Purdue player. But Murphy has improved as a defender as of late so Swanigan will have to deal with his 230 pound strength in an explosive frame.
Murphy scores with his active off ball movement and his duck-ins into the post for catch and shoulder turn quick bounce opportunities. Opposing length has given Jordan an issue in the past but he’s been smarter in shot selection the last four games. On the other end Murphy must be disciplined in his close-outs and his recovery off screens or Swanigan will catch in space and destroy Minnesota. Caleb is every bit as strong as Murphy plus he’s taller and better on the perimeter.
Up front Haas is scoring a high percentage but between stamina and foul issues he’s at about 22 minutes a game which is about the same as Reggie Lynch. Minnesota runs into a couple problems here instantly. Reggie gives up five inches to Haas, Lynch is picking up a lot of lazy fouls as of late, and of course Reggie is not playing well at all.
If Purdue can get Lynch back on the bench in foul trouble early they will have the early edge. Bakary Konate does give Minnesota a defensive low post player they can count on (he did a good job against Ward and against Swanigan and Haas last year) but Bakary is completely limited on the offensive end so that’s why Pitino likes to use him only about 9-10 minutes a contest.
Gopher freshman Amir Coffey has been one of the best first year players in the Big Ten and his first assignment today will likely to put his 6-foot-8 length against that of Vincent Edwards. Murphy will also see Edwards when Purdue goes smaller but Coffey will likely get him the most. Amir will be playing his first Big Ten road game of his career so they need him to rise to the occasion against a tough player. Coffey is scoring a dozen a game but he’s shooting 20 percent at the arc. The Gophers need him to get out and push in transition about 4-5 times which is where he excels.
The McBrayer/Mason vs Thompson/Mathias match-up was won by Purdue last year but the Gopher guards were too much for Thompson and Mathias to deal with. Both Mason and McBrayer were able to turn the corner on screens, attacks space on reversals, and attack in transition against the Purdue pair. If the match-up is similar at all the Gophers will be in the game to the end especially if they can turn Purdue over. Mathias is coming off a huge shooting game against Iowa.
The wrinkles to that are a couple layers deep. Mason and McBrayer have to defend and Mason has been pretty good with Dupree being okay. Opposing teams have noticed that Dupree is having trouble getting off screens so they are sending a lot at him. Also, Mason and McBrayer each have stretches where their decision making when the other team has momentum is questionable at best. That cannot happen in Mackey Arena. The factor of newcomers must be considered as well with Minnesota having senior Akeem Springs as a tough defender and shooter while Purdue has the explosive Edwards to use. Edwards opened the Iowa game with eight straight points and Purdue buried Iowa after that. Minnesota needs to find him quick.
Minnesota will be written off by just about everybody. That said, if there are some people that remember last year’s game they will know how much better Minnesota’s guards were. They are the key to the formula.
What is that formula? Minnesota’s guards must: defend strong and force turnovers, be smart in their attack as it will be there for success if they are patient, and they have to shoot a solid percentage. That is asking a lot, and that’s just to be in the game. Minnesota also needs Reggie Lynch to break out of his funk and they need Jordan Murphy to have a 5th straight game and to do it against one of the Big Ten’s elite players.
That is asking an awful lot. I think Minnesota can be in the game but there is too much that has to go right for them to win on the road. Purdue wins.
Purdue 74 Minnesota 67.