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Minnesota Basketball: Previewing Rutgers

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Gophers look to get back on track after home loss to Maryland

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Rutgers
Rutgers is coming off a thrilling 64-61 win over Ohio State on Wednesday.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Classic Gopher sports, amirite? One day you’re enjoying a 5-star victory on the road over your arch rival, and the next you’re killing your momentum by giving up halftime leads at home to an equally matched foe. It’d be maddening if it weren’t so predictable (okay, it’s still maddening), but that’s the hand we’re dealt with.

Snark aside, it’s less of an indictment on the Gophers themselves and more of a commentary on the Big Ten as a conference this year, where anyone can beat anyone at any given time. There are a couple great teams in the conference and whole bunch of very good teams that are going to beat up on each other all season, so these types of roller coaster rides are to be expected.

The oscillation continues on Saturday when the Gophers host a beatable Rutgers team at home as they look to get back on track during the “softer” part of their schedule. I say softer in quotes because it’s the Big Ten in 2019 and there no gimmes; not even Rutgers, who just surprised everyone with a home victory over Ohio State on Wednesday.

With three straight against Rutgers, Illinois and Penn State, the Gophers desperately need to rack up some wins before those names turn into Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue. The grind includes Saturday morning games against Rutgers just as much as it does prime time games against Sparty. Time to get the job done.

Essentials:

Who are the Gophers playing?

Rutgers Scarlet Knights (1-3, 8-6)

What time are they playing?

Saturday, Jan. 12 @ 11:30 a.m. CT

Where are they playing?

Williams Arena

Can I watch the game on TV?

Yes, BTN.

Can I listen to the game on the radio?

Yes, KFAN 100.3-FM.

Tell me more about the opponent.

The Knights lost a ton of talent in the offseason. Corey Sanders graduated and is off to the G-League. Same with standout forward Deshawn Freeman and team leader Mike Williams. That’s a lot of talent to replace for a program that doesn’t reload as quickly as others. But two players have risen to fill the his void, point guard Geo Baker and junior forward Eugene Omoruyi, who has taken a huge leap in his third year to become the team’s best player.

One problem? Omoruyi dislocated his knee cap against Ohio State, leaving a gaping hole down low for a Rutgers team that is one of the more accomplished offensive rebounding teams in the nation. He averages 14.6 ppg and 7.5 rebounds, and it’s unclear who can step up to match that production. Baker is right behind him, averaging 13-3-4 in his sophomore season.

Was the Ohio State victory a blind squirrel finding a nut? Rutgers now has wins over OSU and Miami (FL), but also dropped a head scratcher to Fordham and went to overtime at home against Columbia.

The Scarlet Knights have yet to record a victory at Williams Arena, going 0-3 in trips as members of the Big Ten Conference along with a Dec. 28, 1979 non-conference defeat. However, the teams have split their last four matchups including a Big Ten Tournament first round Gophers loss last year in New York [shudders].

What to Watch For

Can the Gophers get back to basics?
It was an on-again, off-again game against Maryland, where the Gophers showed flashed of brilliance and outplayed Maryland for more than half the game, but were thoroughly dominated in the final 15 minutes when the Terps couldn’t miss and Minnesota couldn’t score against a zone defense. The Gophers walk on to the court today as the better team, and should be able to lean on their bigs with Omoruyi on the bench, but it’s a matter of converting and drawing on their strengths. That means Isaiah Washington need to stay in his lane, the ball needs to run through Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy, and the team needs to convert at the free throw line. Speaking of that ...

What the hell happened at the line on Tuesday?
39%. Thirty-nine. 9-23. That’s what the Gophers did from the line on Tuesday against the line. That’s 14 free points they left on the table in a 15-point loss. I’m not naive enough to think that they should make every free throw they take, but even going 70% from the line changes the tone of this game. Minnesota is one of the best teams in the country at getting to the free throw line, which is amazing. And they are currently 267th in the country in FT%, which is equally amazing. Only one team in the B1G is worse than the Gophers. Rutgers!

Free throw percentage is hardly indicative of performance over the course of the season, but my God, man. 39 percent? That’s gotta get cleaned up.

Predictions

KenPom likes Minnesota in this one, giving the Gophers a seven-point edge, 69-62. I think the Gophers shake off the Saturday morning doldrums and take this one by eight.