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Big Ten Tournament Opening Round Preview: #11 Minnesota vs. #14 Rutgers

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Includes how to watch, attend, stats, keys to victory and thoughts from head coach Steve Pikiell

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

How To Watch & Listen

#14 Rutgers (13-18; 3-15) vs. #11 Minnesota (15-16; 4-14)

Where: Madison Square Garden, New York City

Tip-off: Wednesday, February 28th at approximately 8:00 p.m. ET

TV: BTN - Kevin Kugler, Stephen Bardo and Mike Hall

Stream: BTN2GO

Radio: WCTC 1450 AM, WOR 710 AM, Sirius/XM 81 - Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.7 FM

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers #161; Minnesota #109

(Note: Rutgers regressed 13 spots since the 15 point loss to Illinois)

KenPom Prediction: Minnesota 69 Rutgers 66; Rutgers given a 39% chance to win

Vegas Line: Opened Minnesota -2.5. At 5:30 p.m. of gameday It is now a pick em (even line).

Series History: Minnesota leads the all-time series 7-1, including a 89-67 win in the Big Ten opener this season. The two schools also met in the 2015 Big Ten Tournament and the Gophers won 80-68.

SB Nation Illinois site: The Daily Gopher

About Minnesota

Richard Pitino’s fifth season in Minneapolis has been a tumultuous one after a 7-0 start, including wins over Providence and Alabama, which led to a top 15 ranking and high expectations after an NCAA Tournament berth a year ago. However, things began to fall apart for the Golden Gophers shortly after they beat Rutgers in the conference opener in early December. Starting center and reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Reggie Lynch, was expelled from school due to two sexual misconduct rulings. Another starter, forward Amir Coffey, went down soon after with a shoulder injury that resulted in season ending surgery. Another frontcourt player, 6’11” Gaston Diedhiou, has missed significant time as well, leaving Minnesota exposed due to a lack of depth on the roster, which is well explained here.

The Gophers enter Wednesday’s game having lost 10 of 11 contests and are a far different team than the one Rutgers faced nearly three months ago. They still have two extremely talented players in Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason, who combine for 45% of Minnesota’s scoring. However, as a team, they are only shooting 43.4% from the field, but shoot a solid 35.2% from three-point range and 70.4% from the free throw line. In Big Ten play, Minnesota is just 13th in offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage, two-point field goal percentage, and are 12th in offensive rebounding percentage. They do take care of the basketball, as they have the league’s third best turnover rate.

On the other end of the floor, Minnesota has also struggled, as they are 13th in defensive efficiency in Big Ten play as well. They were 10th or worse in every defensive category that KenPom measures except opponent free throw rate, in which they were 6th. Opponents have shot and rebounded well against them since early January, when roster attrition became a serious issue. They also do not turn opponents over, as the are 12th in steal rate and 13th in turnover rate in league play.

Here are per game statistical averages for key players on Minnesota:

6’6” junior forward Jordan Murphy - 17.0 points, 11.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.0 block

6’2” senior guard Nate Mason - 16.8 points, 4.3 assists, 3.7 rebounds, 1.1 steals

6’5” junior guard Dupree McBrayer - 9.5 points, 2.4 assists, 2.1 rebounds, 1.0 steals

6’1” freshman Isaiah Washington - 8.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists

6’2” freshman guard Jamir Harris - 4.1 points, 0.9 rebounds

6’8” senior forward Davonte Fitzgerald - 3.6 points, 2.5 rebounds

6’7” sophomore Michael Hurt - 3.3 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.0 assist

6’11” senior center Bakary Konate - 1.7 points, 3.5 rebounds

Know Your Three-Point Shooters:

Nate Mason - 75 of 190 for 39.5%

Dupree McBrayer - 36 of 101 for 35.6%

Jamir Harris - 28 of 80 for 35.0%

Isaiah Washington - 21 of 84 for 25.0%

Rutgers Notes:

During the Big Ten regular season, Rutgers was ranked 14th in offensive efficiency and 9th in defensive efficiency per KenPom.....Rutgers was 9th or worse in every offensive category in league competition measured by KenPom, with the exception of having the 4th best offensive rebounding rate in the conference......Defensively, the strength of Rutgers is forcing mistakes by their opponent, as they owned both the 3rd best steal rate and turnover rate in Big Ten play.

Coach Pikiell Pregame Thoughts

On Playing In Madison Square Garden

“I’m an old Big East guy. My freshman year was the start of it. What an exciting environment. The best basketball venue in the country. The history that’s in that building. I always try and share that with our guys.”

On The Matchup With Minnesota

“We opened the Big Ten season with Minnesota, so we haven’t seen them in a long time. I have a tremendous respect for Minnesota. Coach Pitino was Coach of the Year in the Big Ten last year, what a great honor that is. I’m excited about seeing the changes in our program and how much we’ve improved since the last time we played them. They were ranked when we played them. Hopefully we can play some good, consistent basketball on both ends of the floor. We’ve shown signs of being really good but haven’t really strung it together yet. Maybe this is the time to do that.”

“They have two of the best players in the league in Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason, who is one of the best point guards in the conference. They cause many problems because they have good athletes and good length at every position. We haven’t seen them in a long time. That’s a team that’s changed throughout the season. We know those two guys are huge keys for them.”

On Whether Winning The B1G Tourney Opener Last Year Helps Prepare For This Game

“I think it does. Our guys that have returned have experience in the tournament. The teams that are playing on Wednesday are all within a game or two of each other, so there’s not a huge difference. It’s a great opportunity for us. For our young guys to get another chance to play. For our veterans, our seniors, they understand the urgency. I’m excited. The good part of having a young team is we can turn the page quickly and hopefully get some really good minutes on the court.”

Keys To Victory

Clean The Glass

Rutgers is a better rebounding team than Minnesota, who lack size within their depleted frontcourt. There needs to be an “all hands on deck” approach from the Scarlet Knights, who broke the will of Ohio State last season in the Big Ten Tournament by being relentless on the glass. Rutgers bludgeoned the Buckeyes by holding a +16 rebounding margin and +12 margin on the offensive boards, which keyed the victory. Rutgers has the opportunity to do it again. The only player on Minnesota who averages more than four rebounds a game is Murphy. The trio of trees in Mamadou Doucoure, Shaq Doorson and Candido Sa, who is questionable after missing senior day with a shoulder injury, need to make their presence felt. In addition, The backcourt of Corey Sanders, who has been an improved rebounder this season, and Mike Williams need to be active and outwork the guards of Minnesota. An x-factor could be Issa Thiam, who has been aggressive at times on the boards this season and will have several inches on most of the Gophers. Control the boards and Rutgers will have a key advantage in this game.

Offense Through Defense

It's no secret that Rutgers can't win without playing great defense. In a battle of the two worst offensive teams in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights have a clear edge on the defensive end. Minnesota was just one of three teams to exceed their scoring average against Rutgers in Big Ten play this season. However, they aren't close to the same offense they were in the first meeting. How Rutgers defends Murphy and Mason is hugely important. Although Freeman will start against Murphy and Sanders against Mason, expect Pikiell to rotate defenders in an attempt to wear down the two primary weapons for the Gophers. Another key is for Rutgers to create offense in transition by forcing turnovers from Minnesota, who only average 11 per contest. Whatever mistakes are made, Rutgers needs to capitalize and turn them into points. If they can bring an aggressive attitude on the defensive end, it can spark their offense as well.

Embrace The Lack Of Respect

Head coach Steve Pikiell did a great job motivating his team last season as the 14 seed in the opening round against Ohio State. He will have some help this season, as there is hope Rutgers carries a RAC sized chip on its shoulder entering this game. All-Big Ten honors were announced on Monday and no Rutgers player received any accolades from the coaches and media, with the exception of Mike Williams, who earned the sportsmanship award, which was well deserved (every team has a player represented). Corey Sanders was an egregious omission as an honorable mention selection, an honor he received last season with worse stats than this campaign. Geo Baker was left off the All-Freshman team. Another snub was Eugene Omoruyi being left off the All-Defensive team. If it was unclear that Rutgers receives little respect across the Big Ten, this should bring that notion into focus. Granted, the program has now finished in last place in all four seasons since joining the league. The point is that Rutgers can take out their frustration and double down on being the only 14 seed to ever win a Big Ten Tournament game by doing it a second straight year tonight. They have nothing to lose and typically play their best when they are a big underdog. The difference in this matchup is their opponent isn't an elite team, giving them a better chance to come through on a stage where the entire conference is watching.

Play Together

The character of this team will be on full display tonight. Can Rutgers come in with an edge and want it more than Minnesota, a team that may just want their nightmare season to end? It's a reason Rutgers was able to beat Ohio State last season, as the Scarlet Knights broke their will after coming from behind late in the first half and never looked back. For Rutgers to do the same against Minnesota, they need to play together on both ends of the court. Ball movement and sharing the basketball will make the Gophers have to work hard on defense. Don't settle for contested jumpers and force their defense into multiple rotations in the halfcourt. On the defensive end, Rutgers needs to play as one and make Minnesota work for every basket. Tenacity and focus needs to be there the entire game. Rutgers needs to stick together and outwork Minnesota on both ends of the floor.

Make Free Throws

Minnesota doesn't typically foul that much, but the more Rutgers can attack the rim and force contact, the more opportunities they'll have to convert from the line. If they can shoot better than 70% in this game, it will go a long way into producing a positive outcome. If Rutgers is locked in and focused, they can win this game from the line down the stretch. They need an attacking mindset in the halfcourt and the poise to knock down free throws when given the chance.

In The Bonus

Rutgers has struggled down the stretch of this season and has been severely limited on the offensive end. However, tonight is an opportunity to make a statement that they haven't given up and want to keep playing. Rutgers fans should show up tonight at the Garden and believe this team isn't done yet. They've thrived off of great home crowds all season and while it's a neutral site, it has the potential to be a very pro-Rutgers atmosphere at MSG tonight. In a season where progress has to be measured more so through a fine tooth comb, winning this game and hearing R-U chants in the building would certainly feel like a step forward. Losing at the Garden, likely the only time the Big Ten ever holds the conference tournament there, would feel like a big disappointment. Can Rutgers produce a memorable moment at MSG tonight ? I don't normally make predictions but it's the postseason and to answer that question, I think they will.

Rutgers 65 Minnesota 58

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