Four straight wins and a record above .500 in Big Ten play, that’s the goal this evening when Minnesota takes on the banged up Indiana Hoosiers.
Indiana currently sits at 15-11 on the season and 5-8 in Big Ten play. They’ve lost five of their last six games including a twelve point loss to Michigan at home over the weekend. Minnesota is 18-7 on the year with a 6-6 record in league play.
The story of the season for Indiana has been injuries. Six-foot-4 junior James Blackmon Jr is Indiana’s leading scorer at 16.8 a game and is back in the starting line-up after missing four games. Indiana Head Coach Tom Crean said that is week that Blackmon is not 100 percent healed from his recent knee problem as of yet.
Also playing after missing two games but not fully healthy is 6-foot-8, 230 pound sophomore forward Juwan Morgan. Juwan (who has started 16 of 24 games) continues to deal with a nagging foot injury. Morgan is Indiana’s second leading rebounder plus scores 6.7 points a night.
Six-foot-8, 235 pound sophomore forward OG Anunoby has missed ten games this season and two weeks ago had surgery on his knee. There was talk of Anunoby, averaging 11 points and 5.5 rebounds a game, being a late round NBA pick before his injury. OG’s injury ended his season.
Morgan and Blackmon will play and start but are still not fully healthy. The biggest worry for Gopher fans is Thomas Bryant and his 13.3 points and 6.8 rebounds a game. The 6-foot-10, 255 pound sophomore center is exactly the type of player that has given Minnesota fits this season deep in the post.
The biggest story for the Gophers is the resurgence of sophomore forward Jordan Murphy who was named co-player of the week in the Big Ten. Murphy went from struggling to complete plays and playing with low energy to exploding for huge numbers in wins over Iowa and Rutgers.
Yesterday when meeting the press Coach Richard Pitino said “It’s a mentality switch and it’s blatantly obvious” when referring to Murphy’s recent play. Both Murphy and Nate Mason have rebounded from slumps during the Minnesota five game losing streak to playing some of their best basketball of the season.
Now Minnesota has a four home games in five games stretch that includes Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, and Penn State. Between those four home games and the road games at Maryland and Indiana, Minnesota needs at least three wins to lock up the .500 conference record that would most likely get them back into the NCAA Tournament.
Blackmon returned from his injury last week against Purdue but so far has not hit the level of production he is accustomed to. James has shot a combined 5 of 21 since his return (3 of 12 at the arc) and has scored 17 points in 58 minutes.
Morgan missed games in January versus Penn State and Michigan State. Juwan’s return was slow as made just 4 of 15 attempts and provided single figure production until scoring 11 against Michigan (shot 5 of 9). The effort has been there rebounding wise grabbing 5-6 a game.
Minnesota gave up monster games to the top bigs in the Big Ten this season: Nick Ward had 22 points and 10 rebounds, Caleb Swanigan went for 28 and 22, Ethan Happ killed Minnesota mostly in one half with 28 points and a dozen boards, and this is the tip of the iceberg. Posts have been hammering on Minnesota up front for most of the year and the threat of a big game from Thomas Bryant is real. That said….
A few things have changed as of late. Gopher junior big Reggie Lynch, the Big Ten’s leading shot blocker at over three a game, is doing a better job of staying out of foul trouble. In Minnesota’s first five Big Ten wins Lynch was averaging 32.5 minutes played per game. In their six losses he averaged 23 minutes a game. With Lynch off the floor or in foul trouble opposing bigs feasted.
Minnesota continues to get consistent production from starting wings Amir Coffey (12.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game shooting 46 percent overall and is now up to 32.4 percent at the arc) and Akeem Springs (10.2 points and 3.4 rebounds a game shooting nearly 41 percent at the arc). Coffey has made 17 of 41 three-pointers in Big Ten play (41.5%) and Springs is averaging 15.3 points per game as a starter.
Minnesota is also getting better numbers from Mason and Murphy. Mason’s 5.3 assists with a 3.1 to 1 assist to turnover ratio has been consistent all year. What’s improved is his shooting. After making just 27 percent of his attempts over an eight game stretch Nate has knocked out 20 of his last 51 shots (39 percent which is still lower than wanted, but better).
Murphy has improved from 48 rebounds over 9 games to 30 rebounds in his last two games. Jordan has also scored 42 points on 18 of 28 shooting the last two contests versus 51 points on 42 percent shooting over the previous eight.
Now Minnesota needs Dupree McBrayer to get back on track. The sophomore is still Minnesota’s third leading scorer on the year at 10.6 a game but at one point he was the team’s leading scorer. Since being removed from the starting line-up McBrayer has hit the double figure mark once, has 11 turnovers against 15 assists, and is shooting 11 of 32 in the last five games.
What did Michigan do to beat the Hoosiers by double figures in Bloomington? Forced 15 turnovers out of 66 Hoosier halfcourt possessions and allowed Indiana to shoot just 4 of 19 from the arc. Bryant was limited to eight points on 3 of 8 shooting while the potent Hoosier backcourt of Robert Johnson and James Blackmon shot a combined 4 of 14 for single digit production.
With a 7-foot-5 wingspan and a more agile 260 pound frame than most college players would have Thomas Bryant is Minnesota’s biggest fear. He’s a passionate, energetic player that will go after Reggie Lynch aggressively. Lynch needs to be smart in low post position and make Bryant go over the top. Bryant doesn’t have great bounce so he will try to physically get to position. Lynch must stay on the court and avoid foul issues.
The Gophers are greatly improved defending the perimeter. Their ability to contest at the arc, pressure the ball, be active in the passing lanes, and battle over screens is why this team is so much better defensively (along with Lynch defending the paint). Freshman Josh Newkirk is having a solid freshman season but tonight gets Mason who is playing well and recently listed as one of the best ten players in the Big Ten this year.
On the wing junior Hoosiers Robert Johnson and James Blackmon face Akeem Springs and Amir Coffey. I would guess Springs will start with Blackmon and Coffey will be on Johnson. Blackmon and Johnson are very similar in size, Blackmon is just more explosive and more dangerous. Both are good.
Having a hard working Springs chasing Blackmon should be ideal as Minnesota hopes that tonight isn’t his breakout game. Blackmon or Johnson will need to be on top of their defensive game chasing Springs around screens and doing their best to cut off Amir’s attacking angles.
Juwan Morgan will be given the task of limiting Jordan Murphy. Morgan will have two inches on Murphy but Jordan is competing with a high motor right now as one of the most active players in the Big Ten scoring off the ball. Morgan needs to be in position to make box-out hits on Murphy, must be in position off the ball to limit Murphy’s movement off the ball, and Morgan has to defend Murphy facing up from ten feet and in.
De”Ron Davis is a 6-foot-10 talented freshman off Indiana’s bench with strong potential. At 245 pounds Minnesota will need good minutes from Bakary Konate against him, and against Bryant if Lynch gets in foul trouble. Watch for Eric Curry at the five at times when Minnesota goes small.
I’ve been excessively hard on Minnesota since the fifth game of the season when it comes to predicting but right now they have a lot going for them. They’ve won three in a row, Mason and Murphy are out of their slumps, Minnesota is at home, and they are playing a struggling Hoosiers team that is not only banged up but struggling to put together a win. All signs point to a nine point Gopher win.
Minnesota 70 Indiana 61.