No. 12 Minnesota clashes with Rutgers in Big Ten opener (Dec 03, 2017)

MINNEAPOLIS — As Minnesota and Rutgers open their conference season on Sunday evening at Williams Arena, they each have to be happy, at minimum, that the Big Ten/ACC challenge is over.

For the 12th-ranked Golden Gophers (7-1), their first loss of the season came at home on Wednesday at the hands of 10th-ranked Miami. The Scarlet Knights (6-1) also fell to an ACC team from Florida. Rutgers’ first loss was Tuesday against visiting Florida State.

Knights’ second-year coach Steve Pikiell saw many good things in the loss.

“I thought we fought. I thought we played hard. I’ll coach that team any day of the week,” Pikiell said after his team fell 78-73 to the Seminoles. “We left it on the floor and came up a little short. We’ll learn from it and move on.”

What lineup he will use as the Knights move on to their first road game of the season is a bit of a mystery. After starting forward Deshawn Freeman’s minutes were limited in the Florida State loss due to cramps, sophomore Eugene Omoruyi was pressed into emergency duty and scored 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting.

“Eugene’s been awesome. He’s the most improved guy in our program. He brings it every night and is getting better and better, so I’m excited about his future,” Pikiell said.

“He took it right to the rim in that zone. I like when he plays aggressive like that. He’s a matchup problem and he’s going to be a matchup problem for the rest of the year as we keep moving forward because I’m going to keep moving him around the board like that.”

The Gophers have some moving pieces as well.

The 86-81 loss to Miami came after they lost sophomore guard Dupree McBrayer to a right leg infection, pressing freshman Isiah Washington into his first collegiate start. Washington tied his career best with 14 points, but he missed 11 shots from the field and turned the ball over five times.

On Saturday, Gophers coach Richard Pitino said McBrayer’s status for the Sunday evening game is still unknown.

“It’s still kind of day-to-day. I’ll put him in some non-contact stuff today at practice to see how he is,” Pitino said. “I think he’s feeling much better, but he’s lost a lot of weight. It’s just kind of getting that strength back and everything.”

Minnesota is led by forward Jordan Murphy, who is averaging 21.4 points and 12.5 rebounds. He has a double-double in every game and has been the Big Ten Player of the Week in each of the past three weeks.

The Gophers lead the nation with 8.3 blocked shots per game.

Rutgers is led by guard Corey Sanders (13.0 points per game) and Freeman (11.6 ppg; 8.9 rpg).

Minnesota has dominated the series with Rutgers since the Knights joined the Big Ten, going 6-1 overall and 3-0 at home.

A Rutgers win over the Gophers would be the highest-ranked road victory in the history of the Knights’ program and their first win over a ranked opponent since 2015 when they beat No. 4 Wisconsin at home.