While No. 2 Michigan State is viewed as the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten, and rightfully so, the Spartans will not lack for competition in the title race. One team capable of challenging the Spartans is No. 14 Minnesota, and Monday night in his return to his alma mater Richard Pitino’s team put together a solid second half showing in its 86-74 win at Providence.
The biggest difference for Minnesota in the second half was their improved offensive execution, as forward Jordan Murphy had a big night with 23 points and 14 rebounds to lead the way. After getting off to a quick start, racing out to a 12-2 lead, Minnesota got a bit stagnant offensively. They took challenged shots, and as a result the Golden Gophers trailed at the half by three and had just one assist on 13 made baskets.
With improved execution and a more concerted effort to truly attack the Providence defense, Minnesota shot nearly 61 percent from the field and made four of its seven three-point attempts in the final 20 minutes. And thanks in large part to the tandem of Murphy and Reggie Lynch, who finished with 12 points and five rebounds, Minnesota was able to take advantage of its experience advantage in the front court.
It wasn’t all about the big men either, as Amir Coffey got going in the second half and finished with 15 points, Nate Mason tallied 17 and Dupree McBrayer and Isaiah Washington added nine and eight points, respectively.
Minnesota has the talent needed to be a player both within the Big Ten and nationally, especially as lead guards Mason and Washington get more comfortable sharing the playmaking responsibilities when Pitino calls upon that lineup. But the key to Minnesota making good on that promise will be to stay aggressive offensively while not settling for forced shots. That was an issue in the first half as Providence, a good team in its own right, made its run to pull ahead.
Kyron Cartwright dished out seven assists without a turnover in the the first stanza as Providence relied on a balanced offensive effort, and players such as sophomore Alpha Diallo, freshman Nate Watson and junior Isaiah Jackson took advantage. Yet despite doing their best to hang around Providence’s youth inside, especially with senior Emmitt Holt still out after undergoing abdominal surgery, was exposed by the more experienced Minnesota front line.
After playing a bit lax offensively Minnesota refocused in the second half, and the end result was a quality win that will only increase in value as the season wears on.