The Rutgers men’s basketball team opens its Big Ten schedule this Sunday, the third day in December, with a road trip to Minneapolis to face No. 12 Minnesota. This is the earliest the Scarlet Knights started conference play since it joined the Big Ten in 2014, and it’s for the same reason they joined it in the first place — the Big Ten really wants to tap into the New York City market.
Rutgers first test of the conference campaign projects to be one of their toughest of the year. The Gophers host the Scarlet Knights at 7-1, fresh off their first loss of the season to No. 10 Miami. Head coach Richard Pitino continues to steer Minnesota in the right direction after the Gophers finished 8-23 two seasons ago. A fifth seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament, Minnesota looms as the largest threat to challenge Michigan State for the Big Ten championship behind their vast experience and overwhelming talent.
To get ready for this game, I was fortunate to speak with Chris from SB Nation’s Minnesota site, The Daily Gopher. I asked Chris about the Gophers’ two-year turnaround from an 8-23 season to a top-15 ranking, their Big Ten Player of the Year candidate and their style of play. Let’s tip things off here.
Two years ago, Minnesota lost to one of the worst Rutgers teams in recent memory and finished 8-23. Now, they’re a top-15 team coming off a fifth-seeded NCAA Tournament appearance. How was Richard Pitino able to make such a quick turnaround?
CH: Better talent and growth as a coach. A lot of Minnesota fans feel (rightfully IMO) that the top 5 for Minnesota can play with almost everyone in the country. Obviously you don't only play your top 5 and the loss to Miami this week shows that Minnesota still has some depth questions. But the core of the turnaround is the fact that there is talent enough for us to feel that good about the starting five just 18 months after the worst season in program history.
Give us a quick overview of Minnesota’s style of play. Where does Minnesota thrive the most? What do they do well? Where do they struggle?
CH: The team thrives inside with Jordan Murphy. Too much focus on Murphy will give Nate Mason and Amir Coffey room to hurt you as well. Defensively the Gophers are extremely tough inside, especially since Reggie Lynch seems to have improved his penchant for fouls. Thus far the weakness seems to be 3 point defense and extremely quick perimeter teams like Miami. The other weakness for Minnesota is depth, but that can be a bit overblown. However, the sooner we get Dupree McBrayer back in the starting lineup the better.
Jordan Murphy is getting talk as a potential Big Ten Player of the Year candidate and National Player of the Year sleeper. What does he do best, where have you seen him grow the most since he arrived as a freshman and how crucial is he to Minnesota’s success?
CH: He's improved his strength considerably. This has allowed him to dominate inside despite giving up size to opponents (every game this season has been a double/double). He's also displayed a good ability to recognize and defeat double teams off the dribble or via the pass. The only part of his game that's missing is a consistent outside shot. If he had that he'd be more than a sleeper for NPoY.
Murphy, Mason and Coffey steal the headlines for this team, but Reggie Lynch is vital player who seems to sneak under the radar. Steve Pikiell mentioned him as a great shot blocker. Do you foresee another Big Ten Defender of the Year caliber season out of him?
CH: Without question. He's one of the best interior defenders in college basketball. His improvements so far mean he's been on the floor about 5-10 more minutes per game on average and that's bad news for Minnesota opponents. I'd be shocked if he's not up for B1G DPoY at the end of the season.
Minnesota seemed to struggle a lot against Miami’s guards the other day. Strong guard play being crucial in college basketball is almost a cliche at this point, but do you see that as the biggest area of weakness the Gophers have on defense?
CH: In all honesty, I think Minnesota wins over Miami if Dupree McBrayer is playing. He's Minnesota's best perimeter defender due to his length and quickness. That said, I do think this team will always be tested by teams with strong guards and quickness on the perimeter because as of now we lack bench contributors able to step in for the starters (for injury or fouls) against a team like like. Thankfully we'll see few of those in Big Ten play.
One of the few areas I see Minnesota struggling in is defensive rebounding. As far as KenPom goes, they’re mediocre in opposing offensive rebound percentage. Is that a product of their style of play? Offensive rebounding is also one of Rutgers biggest strengths — do you think that’s something Rutgers has to exploit?
CH: I'm not overly worried about our rebounding, but second chance points would be a great way for Rutgers to get in the game against Minnesota. Shooting well from 3 is the other.
What is your biggest concern for this game when you look at this Rutgers team? What is your prediction for Sunday?
CH: That we'll be without Dupree McBrayer and that the team will struggle to gel as a result. Honestly, my expectation based on how this team had played this season is that it's fairly close at half before Jordan Murphy dominates down the stretch en route to his 9th straight double/double of the year. Call it Minnesota 82, Rutgers 68.