WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – It's safe to say that Minnesota might be the most difficult team to figure out in the Big Ten this season. There are times they look like world-beaters, like in wins over top-5 teams Michigan and Iowa at home, but then there are also times where you wonder how they beat anybody.
Minnesota is 11-5 overall, but just 4-5 in the Big Ten. The Gophers won all seven nonconference games, but they played the softest out-of-league schedule in the Big Ten, and it's not even close. So when Big Ten play started, we wondered how good they'd be.
But they're the only team to beat Michigan, and they've beaten that great Iowa team, too. They've also beaten Michigan State and Ohio State at home while both were ranked.
But their five losses have been hard on the eyes. The margin of defeat has been 18.6 points a game. Granted, four were on the road at Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa – more than likely the four best teams in the Big Ten – but they also lost at home to a struggling Maryland team last Saturday, getting beaten 63-49 when they couldn't even hit the broad side of their own "Barn.''
So who shows up at Mackey Arena for Saturday's game with the Boilermakers, who will be playing their first game in eight days? The good Gophers? Those other imposters?
"That's a really good question,'' Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. "(They're) not really (different on film in wins compared to losses). Obviously, they've shot much better and home than they have on the road, but you prepare for them at their best. That's the best way to go about it. They've had some great home wins and they've had some struggles on the road where they had trouble getting going.
"They're a good team and they have good players and I know especially after their last game, where they got their first loss at home, they're going to bounce back.''
The Gophers are led by guard Marcus Carr, who's been one of the best players in the country this season. He's averaging 20.9 points and 5.2 assists a game, and is extremely difficult to keep under control.
''Marcus Carr has had a fabulous year and he causes everybody problems,'' Painter said. "He has an ability to break you down off the dribble and get in the paint, create for his teammates, create for himself.
"Plus, he gets fouled, and that's something he might do better than anybody in the country. I don't know stats for everybody else, but he gets to the free throw lane a lot.''
Carr is one of those guys who always has the green light to shoot from Minnesota coach Richard Pitino. So he'll shoot from anywhere. And make them, too. He's made 36-of-102 three-point tries, many from far beyond the arc.
"He's one of those guys that makes shots where you're not mad at your guys defensively,'' Painter said. "When somebody makes a shot, usually it's something we did to let them get points. But with him, tou can play good defense on him but he can take a step-back 25-footer and nail it.
"You've just got to make him earn things more than anything. You've got to try your best to bottle him up and keep him out of the paint. He's been really good.''
Minnesota is getting a nice boost from transfer Liam Robbins, a 7-foot center who came to Minneapolis after two years at Drake. He's averaging 13.3 points and 6.9 rebounds a game and leads the league in blocked shots. He's also made 14-of-35 three-pointers, good for 40 percent.
"Robbins has been a great addition to that team with his ability to score with his back to the basket and make threes and get opportunities off the offensive glass,'' Painter said "He's got good length. He leads the league blocked shots and can rebound the ball and score the ball.''
Robbins is a late bloomer. His senior year in high school, he grew eight inches. But he wasn't all that talented and he was out of shape after that crazy growth spurt that involved a lot of eating. He reclassified and went to prep school, and a year later, he got an offer from Drake. But he wanted more, and came to Minnesota, where his uncle is an assistant coach.
"I watched his story on "The Journey'' and that's what it's all about,'' Painter said. "It's not where you are when you're 16-17-18 years old, it's where you are when you're 22-23 years old. He's kept working and kept progressing at Drake, and now he's a fifth year and he's a good player, an all-conference caliber player in the best league in the country.''
Carr and Robbins work well in screen-rolls, and they can be tough to cover because Carr is so explosive with the ball in his hands.
"Definitely a concern and you want to make it hard on them, but it least you want to have a good contest on their shots,'' Painter said. "It's always a concern when you've got a five that can shoot, but it's also a tall task to keep Carr in front of you off the dribble."
Both teams are well-rested and trying to bounce back from bad losses. Purdue lost 70-53 to Michigan last Friday, and Minnesota had its first home loss against Maryland. Carr was good in that game, scoring 25 points, but his teammates contributed next to nothing.
Take out Carr's numbers, and Minnesota was 6-for-32 from the field, a measly 18.7 percent, and they were 2-for-17 from three (11.8 percent).
Purdue has owned this rivalry lately. Purdue is 41-7 against the Golden Gophers at Mackey Arena, having won 11 of 12 meetings in the facility under Painter. Purdue won 83-78 in overtime a year ago.
Game time is 7:30 p.m. ET and the game is televised on the Big Ten Network.
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