MILWAUKEE, Wis. – Middle Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament will kick off Thursday afternoon with a matchup against five-seed Minnesota.
The Blue Raiders (30-4), the 12 seed in the South quadrant of the bracket, have met the Golden Gophers (24-9) five times in their history, with Minnesota winning the last four. Their last matchup came in 2012 in the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals, a 78-72 MT loss.
This season was rather rocky for the Gophers. After starting 15-2, they lost five straight in Big Ten play before turning things around and winning nine of their last 11, including eight in a row. They finished fourth in the Big Ten with an 11-7 record and advanced to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, losing to eventual champion Michigan.
The injury bug has bitten Minnesota
Head coach Richard Pitino’s squad advanced to the Big Ten semifinals with a win of Michigan State in the quarterfinals, but it came at a price. Senior guard Akeem Springs, the team’s fifth-leading scorer and top 3-point shooter, was lost for the remainder of the season due to an Achilles tendon injury.
With Springs out of the lineup, the already thin Golden Gophers chose to use just seven players in their 84-77 loss to Michigan, and one of those guys, Michael Hurt, registered just one minute played.
Sophomore Dupree McBrayer slotted into Minnesota’s starting lineup against Michigan. The 6-foot-5 guard averages 10.9 points per game on the season but scored 14 against the Wolverines and played all 40 minutes.
Guards leading the way for Gophers
Even without Springs in the lineup, the Golden Gophers are led by a guard-heavy lineup. The trio of McBrayer, Nate Mason and Amir Coffey have combined for 1,260 points this season, which is just over half of the team’s total of 2,484.
Mason leads the way at 15.5 points per game, good for eighth in the Big Ten. He’s also third in the conference in assists per game at five and was named to the All-Big Ten first team. Coffey, a Big Ten All-Freshman Team selection, is second on the team at 12.1 points per game.
The game could get defensive
At times Minnesota can struggle to score, as evidenced by its 231st-ranked team field goal percentage of 43.5 percent, but the Gophers do have the ability to shut teams down.
Their 69.1 points per game allowed ranks just eighth in the Big Ten, but the Golden Gophers permit opponents to shoot only 39.8 percent from the floor and 34.4 percent from 3-point range. Both of those are tops in the Big Ten and in the top 16 in the nation.
Minnesota’s big men lead the way defensively. Junior 6-foor-10 center Reggie Lynch, the team’s only true center and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, leads the conference with 3.5 blocks per game. Sophomore Jordan Murphy, who is third on the team in scoring at 11.2 per game, ranks fourth in the conference in both defensive rebounds (6.4) and total rebounds (8.8) per contest.
The poor-shooting Golden Gophers should be welcomed site for MT, which sports the nation’s 21st-ranked scoring defense at 63.3 points allowed per game, especially if they are going to pull up from distance.
Minnesota currently ranks just 203rd nationally in 3-point percentage (34.4), while the Blue Raiders allow teams to shoot 32 percent from beyond the arc, which was tops in Conference USA.
Blue Raiders fare well against Pitino
Though Middle Tennessee is facing Minnesota for the first time with Pitino leading the way, the fourth-year Gopher head man and Big Ten Coach of the Year is no stranger to the Blue Raiders. He spent the 2012-2013 season as the head coach at FIU, the last year the Panthers and MT were members of the Sun Belt Conference.
In that season, the two teams met three times, with the last matchup coming in the Sun Belt Championship game. The Blue Raiders won the first two contests before falling in the tournament championship 61-57.
Thursday’s first round game can be seen on TNT following the end of Butler against Winthrop. It is scheduled for a 3 p.m. Central tip.