Preview: No. 10 Miami squares off with Minnesota as part of Big Ten/ACC Challenge
TIME: 9:15 p.m.
MINNEAPOLIS — Richard Pitino felt his No. 12 Minnesota Gophers would get a good test against No. 25 Alabama in the Barclays Center Classic last weekend.
Pitino’s veteran squad was passing the test against the top team it had faced this season before ejections, a foul out and an injury put Minnesota in the strange situation of playing five players against three for Alabama.
The Tide ended up cutting into the Gophers’ lead before Minnesota held on for a win.
“We were rebounding the ball, we were defending, we were executing,” Pitino told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “So I think for 27 minutes, we were a really good team.”
If Saturday’s test was limited because of the circumstances, Wednesday offers another as the Gophers (7-0) host No. 10 Miami (5-0) in the Big Ten/Atlantic Coast Conference Challenge.
“It’s definitely exciting,” junior Jordan Murphy told the Star Tribune. “This definitely one of the most highly ranked teams I’ve played. Definitely a really good team — good test for us.”
The Hurricanes’ high standing in the rankings is built on a talented group of players, who’ve been balanced offensively in their few games this season. Dewan Huell leads Miami in scoring at 13.4 points per game. Ja’Quan Newton adds 11.6 points per game, while to potential NBA first-round picks are also on the roster despite humbles starts to the season.
Sophomore guard Bruce Brown Jr. is averaging 9.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game, while freshman guard Lonnie Walker IV is averaging 7.0 points.
“Bruce is playing like Clark Kent, a little conservative, glasses, suit and tie,” Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga told the Miami Herald. “At some point, he’ll remove the glasses and become Superman.”
Walker scored five points against La Salle last week in which Miami was playing its first game away from the Watsco Center. Walker’s role is still developing.
“I’m still trying to figure him out, like when Dwyane Wade went to the Bulls and they had to figure him out,” Larranaga told the Herald. “Once they figured things out, D-Wade played great, and I think Lonnie will be the same.”
Minnesota has its own set of standout players. Murphy earned, who leads the Big Ten with 22.0 points and 12.3 rebounds per game this season, was recently named the Big Ten Player of the Week for the third consecutive week. He’s recorded a double-double in every game.
Nate Mason (13.7 points per game), Amir Coffey (12.4) and Reggie Lynch (11.3) all score in double-figures and the fifth starter, Dupree McBrayer, is just short at 9.3 per game.
“This will be our first big game this season in the barn,” Coffey told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “It’s a top match-up in the rankings. Two good teams, and I’m excited to compete with them.”
Miami will certainly be getting its biggest test of the season in Minnesota. The Hurricanes have played Gardner-Webb, Navy, Florida A&M, La Salle and North Florida so far this season. Wednesday will be the Hurricanes first true road game after playing La Salle at a neutral site.
The Gophers have had several games to test their mettle. They won on the road at Providence before beating Massachusetts and Alabama last weekend In New Jersey. Miami is the highest-ranked non-conference opponent to play in Minnesota sine No. 4 Cincinnati in 1998.
“We’re about to play potentially our third top-25 opponent and it’s not even December yet,” Pitino told the Pioneer Press. “I think we play a tough schedule. It’s crazy to think that after Wednesday we will have played the teams we have played and it’s not even December. … Now Miami in our building is a tremendous opportunity. Then (we play) Rutgers, Nebraska, and at Arkansas. Nobody can complain about our schedule, that’s for sure.”
Some have wondered about letting the lead slip against an undermanned Alabama team Saturday. Pitino said any criticism is “fake outrage.”
“I just remind people that you guys didn’t watch the first 30 minutes of that game,” Murphy told the Star Tribune. “We were up 15-plus on a top-25 team. We were playing great basketball. We played outstanding basketball for the first 30 minutes. We did a good job of locking in and locking them up. I just think we played great.”
The Gophers are 3-1 in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge under Pitino’s leadership. Last year’s loss snapped a five-game win streak for Minnesota in the challenge. Miami is 4-2 under Larranaga in the challenge with three straight wins.