MINNEAPOLIS - Richard Pitino has talked at length this season about the necessity to defend your home court.
The Big Ten seems to be a fist fight of a basketball game on a nightly basis so far this year, with Rutgers, Illinois and Wisconsin all tied for second at 4-2. The Gophers are fifth at 4-3 after beating Penn State Wednesday night. The Nittany Lions were ranked for the first time in more than 20 years last week, but have since lost three straight.
Minnesota has won three of its past four games, six of its last eight and in the process, has entered the NCAA Tournament conversation. The Gophers got off to a 1-3 start with one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, which included a neutral site loss to Oklahoma in South Dakota, and road losses at Butler and Utah.
That schedule had them battle-tested for the grind that is the Big Ten season. Here are takeaways from Wednesday night’s win over Penn State.
Carr, Oturu become the dynamic duo
Daniel Oturu has been getting a lot of the early headlines this season, and deservedly so. He’s become one of the best players, and one of the best centers, in the Big Ten in just his sophomore season. He’s also not doing it all by himself. Marcus Carr scored a game-high 27 points, scoring from all over the floor while shooting 7-of-17 from the field, including 3-of-7 from three-point range. More importantly, he had nine assists and just two turnovers. With about a minute to play, Carr won the race for a loose ball, took it the length of the floor, scored and was fouled to give the Gophers a 74-64 lead and essentially seal the win. He also played all 40 minutes. He’s making the most of every opportunity after having to sit out last season.
Oturu has been nothing short of a star. He had another double-double with 26 points and 14 rebounds Wednesday night, shooting 8-of-14 from the field in nearly 38 minutes. He’s added the perimeter jump shot to his game, hitting a 3-pointer in the second half to give the Gophers a 69-61 lead over the Nittany Lions. With each big game he has, more NBA scouts are coming to watch Oturu play. Fans might want to get to Williams Arena this season if they want to see him in person, there’s no guarantee he’ll be around this time next year.
Demir, Omersa lock down Lamar Stevens
Maybe just as important as Oturu and Carr combining for 53 points Wednesday were the defensive efforts of Alihan Demir and Jarvis Omersa on Penn State star Lamar Stevens. Omersa fouled out in the second half, but not before forcing Stevens into several tough shots on a 5-of-14 shooting night and 14 points, below his season average. Omersa’s energy on the defensive end, and Demir added nine points and four rebounds at key times helped spring the Gophers to a much-needed home win in the Big Ten.
Gophers don’t back down from trash talk
There was a fair amount of trash talking from both teams Wednesday night. It got the most heated during a jump ball that ended with Oturu and Mike Watkins each were issued technical fouls. Lamar Stevens did his fair share of jawing with Gophers players, and nobody was going to back down in the heat of the moment. Play got a little chippy in the final 10 minutes, and emotions ran a bit high in the postgame handshake as Oturu had choice words for Stevens. Gopher teammates eventually stepped in and pulled Oturu away before anything could happen. It was all in competition, but it could make for an interesting rematch at Penn state in about three weeks.
What’s going on with Gabe Kalscheur?
It wasn’t that long ago that Gabe Kalscheur was Minnesota’s top perimeter threat and most consistent shooter. The shot isn’t falling right now, so he has to find other ways to be effective on the floor. Kalscheur was 0-of-7 from three-point range Wednesday night, the second time he hasn’t made a 3-pointer in Big Ten play. He was 0-of-10 at Iowa. In his last five games, Kalscheur is 7-of-34 (20.5 percent) from three-point range.
He’s getting good looks, they just aren’t going in. The important thing is that he continues to shoot, and not let it affect his game elsewhere.
Minnesota defends home court
It’s been two straight games that the Gophers have fallen behind by double digits in the first half, and come back to win. Richard Pitino made it very clear after Wednesday’s win how important it is to defend your home court in Big Ten play. “You have to win at home in this league,” he said.
So far, they are. The Gophers are 9-1 at home this season, with the only loss coming to a DePaul team in non-conference play that should be an NCAA Tournament team. Their home Big Ten wins are Ohio State, Northwestern, Michigan and now Penn State. The Gophers are 0-5 this season in true road games, and they get another chance for their first win at Rutgers on Saturday.