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Minnesota Basketball: Previewing Niagara

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The Gophers go for their third straight win to open the season.

NCAA Basketball: Niagara at St. John Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Gophers wasted no time in establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with this season, taking care of business in a hostile Dunkin’ Donuts Center en route to a convincing 86-74 victory over Providence on Monday. It was the type of game where a win was much more beneficial to the resume than a loss would have been as a detriment. No one would have blamed the Gophers for a hard-fought loss on the road against a good Big East team.

The win painted the Gophers as a squad that should have the capabilities to live up to early season expectations and showcased their ability to manage in-game challenges. It’s not an easy task to go on the road against anyone in college basketball, much less against a team that is expected to be in the NCAA Tournament at the end of the year. But Minnesota cleared an early hurdle in one of their toughest non-conference games of the year.

The reward for pulling off the victory out east is a return to Williams Arena against a MAAC team. The Niagara Purple Eagles are 1-0 on the season and expected to finish in the middle of the conference, having ended last season a disappointing 10-23.

The game kicks off a string of three very winnable games against low-major opponents including Niagara, Western Carolina and Alabama A&M.

Essentials:

Who are the Gophers playing?

Niagara Purple Eagles (1-0, 0-0)

What time are they playing?

7 p.m. CT

Where are they playing?

Williams Arena

Can I watch the game on TV?

Sort of. It’s on BTN Plus, which requires a subscription.

Can I listen to the game on the radio?

Yes. 1130 AM

Tell me more about the opponent.

The Eagles have had quite a few bad seasons in a row, and haven’t won more than 10 games in a season since 2014. A victim of transfers from the program, it’s been a grind for Niagara. That may change this year, though, as the team brings back all five starters from last season.

The Eagles are led by two high-performing senior guards, Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes, who did most of the scoring last year. Scott averaged 17 points and seven rebounds per game, while Dukes checked in at 15 points and four assists per game. They were a great backcourt battery as Dukes led the team in assists and three-point shooting while leading the conference in free throw percentage, hitting an amazing 105 of 114 attempts.

The two were up to their usual tricks in their first, and so far only game of the year in a 77-75 win over St. Bonaventure. Scott racked up 18 points and pulled down eight boards while Dukes was 6-8 from deep en route to 23 points.

Still, the Eagles don’t have much by way of paint presence, and had trouble scoring last year inside of the three-point line, where the Gophers are very effective.

Keys to the Game

Grab control early

If there’s one thing low-majors thrive on, it’s early success where they’re allowed to hang around and gain some confidence. One of the few things Niagara has going for it in this game is their veteran lineup. It’s never wise to overlook a team that is bringing back much of it’s starting lineup, and that’s especially true with a team like the Eagles. If the Gophers can put the game away early they can stifle any confidence Niagara may have. But if a veteran-led team that shoots three-pointers well can gain some confidence, that could be dangerous.

Shut down the perimeter

Niagara’s Dukes can shoot the ball extremely well from long-range and already nailed six three-pointers in the team’s first game. We saw what happened early on with USC Upstate, who hung around much longer than we would have liked thanks to some hot shooting. The Gophers will have the middle locked up on defense, so ensuring Dukes doesn’t get hot should be a priority.

Predictions

KenPom likes the Gophers in this one, predicting an 83-68 drubbing and giving the team a 94 percent chance of winning. I’ll take the Gophers by 12.