116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
At first glance, Minnesota looks like a men’s basketball team Iowa ought to be able to wear down Sunday afternoon in the Gophers’ Williams Arena.
Minnesota was primarily using a seven-player rotation before its game at Michigan State Wednesday, then starting forward Eric Curry suffered an ankle injury in that game. Curry’s status for Sunday may not be known until the 1 p.m. tipoff approaches.
However, the Gophers pushed the Spartans to the final tenth of a second in that game before losing 71-69 when MSU’s Joey Hauser made a layup off a broken play.
Minnesota is 1-4 in the Big Ten, having lost its last three games. But at 10-4 overall, this is a team that has been surprisingly competitive given what the program was looking at before the season.
Richard Pitino was dismissed as coach after his eight-year run ended with a 14-15 season and a 54-96 Big Ten record. Immediately, the Gophers’ players got out of Minnesota faster than rich people in winter.
The players transferred to Texas, Vanderbilt, Iowa State, Oregon State, New Mexico, Utah, DePaul, Pacific, Northern Illinois and new Division I program St. Thomas over in St. Paul.
Xavier assistant coach Ben Johnson — a former Minnesota player and assistant coach — was hired to replace Pitino. He immediately scoured the nation for transfers, and plucked them from programs that aren’t Texas, etc.
“The impressive thing is the job he has done in just getting a group of guys who are talented, but getting them to all buy in and play together,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “I think that’s the hardest thing.
“He’s got pieces that fit and they’re competing.”
Jamison Battle, a native Minnesotan, transferred in from George Washington. He is a forward who leads the team with 17.9 points per game. Starting guards Elyijah Stephens and Luke Loewe, came in from Lafayette and William and Mary, respectively.
The two main substitutes, Sean Sutherlin and Charlie Daniels, left New Hampshire and Stephen F. Austin.
“You’ve got guys that were the best player on the team they left,” McCaffery said, “which is great, except that at some level, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices as well. Which they’ve done.”
Johnson did the best he could to stock a roster on short notice. His team jelled quickly, winning road games against Pittsburgh and Mississippi State before shocking Michigan 75-65 in Ann Arbor on Dec. 11.
They’ve come down to earth as the post-New Year’s Big Ten grind began, but were tied at Michigan State Wednesday in the final seconds.
Curry averages 8.7 points and a team-best 6.8 rebounds, so his absence would be felt if he can’t play.
The Hawkeyes are 0-2 on the Big Ten road thus far. To make a strong NCAA tournament case, they’ll need to pick up a few road victories. This one seems attainable, but a long way from certain.
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