Northwestern finally has a chance to defend its home court against a Big Ten opponent. The Minnesota Golden Gophers (13-2, 1-1 Big Ten) are in Evanston for what should be a tight matchup between two up-and-coming conference foes. Minnesota is coming off of a shocking road upset of No. 15 Purdue, while the Wildcats (12-3, 1-1) will look to bounce back after their 9-game winning streak was snapped by Michigan State in East Lansing last week.
These aren’t the 2015-16 Gophers. That group won just eight games all season, posting an ugly 2-16 mark in conference. Northwestern dominated the two meetings with favorable scores of 77-52 and 82-58.
One year later, everything has changed for Richard Pitino and Minnesota. The Gophers’ young talent has improved, several key pieces have been added, and the team as a whole has meshed surprisingly well.
Minnesota is 10th in RPI and 37th in KenPom, while Northwestern comes in at 46th and 44th, respectively. The Gophers’ only loss in their non-conference schedule was on the road to No. 12 Florida State as they picked up four top-100 KenPom victories. The second loss came in the Big Ten opener; Minnesota blew a 13-point second half lead in a 75-74 overtime loss to Michigan State.
Minnesota’s unquestioned leader is junior point guard Nate Mason, who is averaging 14.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while shooting 44 percent from deep. When Mason is hot, he’s nearly impossible to stop, which was the case on Monday as he exploded for 31 points and 11 assists (to one turnover) in the win over Purdue. In all likelihood, the individual matchup between Mason and a slumping Bryant McIntosh will play a major role on Thursday.
Chris Collins praised Mason, calling him “a first-team all-league player” at the moment who is “maybe the best guard in the conference when you put up his production.”
While Mason has taken significant strides in his third year, he was still a solid player last season. What has made the biggest difference for this year’s Minnesota team is that Pitino has finally surrounded his point guard with talent. Among the seven Gophers getting at least 20 minutes per game, four are new to the team.
The most notable addition to this year’s Minnesota roster is a player with an easily-recognizable Northwestern connection. Freshman swingman Amir Coffey is the younger brother of Wildcats’ women’s basketball star Nia Coffey. The younger Coffey was a top-50 recruit nationally but chose to stay home and play for the Gophers despite receiving offers from Arizona, Michigan State, Iowa State and Wisconsin.
His decision appears to have paid off so far, as he is third on the team in scoring at 12 points per game and has been a big reason why Minnesota has started so strong. The 6-7 lefty has an incredibly smooth game and, like his big sister, should continue to develop as his career progresses.
Coffey hasn’t been the only newcomer to make a significant impact. Fellow freshman Eric Curry is a key reserve forward who scored seven of his 10 points against Purdue in the extra period.
Additionally, Pitino has gotten a boost from two transfers this season, as Akeem Springs (Wisconsin-Milwaukee) is tied with Mason for the team lead in three-pointers and Reggie Lynch (Illinois State) is a 6-10, 260-pound behemoth who has excelled in a starting center role. Lynch doesn’t have much of an offensive game, but leads the entire country in block percentage and blocks per 40 minutes.
Finally, sophomores Dupree McBrayer and Jordan Murphy have made major strides from their debut seasons in Minneapolis. McBrayer starts at the 2 for Minnesota with Murphy at the 4, and both are averaging in double figures.
Luckily for Collins, Northwestern is expecting to get starting center Dererk Pardon back from the hand injury that has cost him the last eight games. His size and ability will be needed in a tough matchup with Lynch and Murphy in the Minnesota frontcourt. Collins commented on Pardon’s status on Tuesday:
“I don’t know if he’s back to 100 percent, but he’s doing great. He was cleared to start doing some basketball activities at the end of last week, so he’s had about a week of activity, which has been good. He’s looked good in practice, he hasn’t favored the hand at all, he’s feeling good, so barring any setbacks he should be ready to go on Thursday night.”
If Pardon can play his usual 25-30 minutes, the Wildcats would get a major boost as Barret Benson and Gavin Skelly ran into foul trouble against a similarly tough Michigan State front line.
Despite Minnesota’s incredible improvement, this is still a very winnable game for Northwestern at home. Minnesota is a strong defensive team that sometimes struggles on offense, so don’t be surprised if neither team reaches 70 points.
Even this early in Big Ten play, every game matters for the Wildcats’ tourney dreams, especially against teams like the Gophers. It’s going down in Welsh-Ryan Arena later tonight.
Minnesota: Mason, McBrayer, Coffey, Murphy, Lynch
Northwestern: McIntosh, Lindsey, Law, Lumpkin, Pardon
Game time: 8 p.m. CT
TV channel: ESPNU
Online streaming: WatchESPN
Betting line: Northwestern -3.5