So, uh, the season is here, guys. No, really. It starts tonight against USC Upstate. As in South Carolina. Real college basketball that counts begins in a few hours.
This season hardcore snuck up on me, which is funny because this is a year that promises to be highly entertaining, so you think we’d be waiting with bated breath. Still, the Gophers are picked by pundits to be a contender for the Big Ten championship, and if things come together correctly this could be a magical season. The loss of Eric Curry hurts, but at the end of the day this is a team that returns basically its entire starting lineup, added a prized four-star recruit who is already showing some skills and added two other guys (Davonte Fitzgerald and Jamir Harris) who can already contribute. It’s going to be okay.
Minnesota had two exhibition games to shake the rust off, and boy did they let off some offseason steam against Concordia and UW-Green Bay, eclipsing the 100-point mark in both games. That’s a lot of firepower. Now they get to tangle with a team that will actually impact their win-loss record. It’s time to go.
First up for the Gophers are the Spartans from USC Upstate. The Spartans had a good season by A-Sun standards last year, finishing fourth in the conference with a 17-16 record overall and 7-7 in the conference. They were invited to the CIT but exited in the first round. 2017-18 doesn’t look to be nearly as kind, however.
Who are the Gophers playing?
USC Upstate Spartans (0-0, 0-0)
What time are they playing?
7 p.m. CT
Where are they playing?
Can I watch the game on TV?
Sort of. It’s on BTN Plus, which requires a monthly subscription.
Can I listen to the game on the radio?
Yes. KFAN 100.3. We’re on FM now.
Tell me more about the opponent.
One thing you rarely want to see as a college basketball fan is your coach stepping down. And you REALLY don’t want to see is your coach stepping down a few weeks before the first game of the season. And that’s just what happened with Upstate, who’s long-time coach Eddie Payne announced a surprise resignation in early October, citing health reasons. That left the reins of the team to assistant coach Kyle Perry, who is now the de facto head coach. Things are probably pretty messy right now down in Spartanburg.
The Spartans lost easily their best player to graduation, a 7-foot center they built their entire program around. The scoring duties now fall on junior guard Mike Cunningham. Cunningham averaged 13 ppg and 3 apg, but was pretty streaky. When he’s on he can score in bunches, and had seven games of 20 or more points last year. On the flip side, he had eight games of single digit outputs. He led the team in three-point percentage, hitting 42 percent of his shots from deep.
The other guy to watch is Malik Moore, a hyper-athletic forward who is capable of a big game, but highly inconsistent. Still, the Spartans have no size, no reliable scorer yet and no identity. They’re going to have a hell of a time keeping pace with a team like the Gophers, who should make life pretty miserable for them.
Keys to the Game
1. Nobody get hurt.
The Spartans are in rough shape after losing their best player to graduation and head coach to health reasons. They were a terrible team defensively last season, ranking in the 300s in points allowed per possession and have no size. This should be a good game for the Gophers to ease into the regular season and get some rotations going before they get a huge test on the road at Providence on Sunday.
2. Get Fitzgerald some playing time.
Fitz is a real X-factor this year. The team desperately needs to fill Curry’s minutes and, on paper, Fitzgerald is the man for the job. He’s athletic, can jump out of the gym, and can shoot a little bit. The problem is he hasn’t played in two years, so it’s only natural that he needs a bit of runway to get back into game shape. He wasn’t anything special in the two scrimmages, but it would be nice to get him some PT tonight as the Gophers ramp up the season and start seeing what he’s capable of.
KenPom likes the Gophers in this one, predicting a 23-point win, 88-65. I think Minnesota toys with 100 points again in this one in a rout to kick things off.