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Men’s basketball: Will Gophers play Rutgers on Saturday? Maybe

Minnesota preparing to play the Knights at Williams Arena, but COVID test results will make final call

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Minnesota
Minnesota Gophers guard Payton Willis (0) moves to the basket as Iowa Hawkeyes guard Joe Toussaint (2) defends him during the first half Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, at Williams Arena inMinneapolis.
Harrison Barden / USA Today Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — Will Minnesota play its men’s basketball game against Rutgers on Saturday? Maybe.

“As of right now we’re preparing, prepping and expecting to play tomorrow,” coach Ben Johnson said, “but with testing, it’s literally hour to hour.”

Minnesota had to postpone Wednesday’s road game against Penn State because of COVID-19 positives in its program; it has yet to be rescheduled. The Gophers took a day off from team activity but have gotten the usual prep time for the Scarlet Knights, who stifled Iowa on Wednesday, 48-46, in Piscataway, N.J., to improve to 11-6 overall, 5-2 in the Big Ten.

Iowa beat a shorthanded Minnesota team, 81-71, last Sunday, dropping Minnesota to 10-5 overall, 1-5 in conference play. The Hawkeyes’ 46 points at Rutgers represented less than half of their 83.7-point scoring average for the season.

“With how they play defensively, it keeps them in every game,” Johnson said of the Knights. “They’re long, athletic, experienced. The reason they have the record they have in the Big Ten is because they’re a good team, and I’ve talked to my team about that.”

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NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Minnesota
Minnesota Gophers forward Jamison Battle (10) acknowledges the crowd during the second half Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
Harrison Barden / USA Today Sports

If Saturday’s game goes as scheduled, Johnson said, it’s unclear whether he’ll have his regular seven-man rotation intact. Leading scorers Jamison Battle (18 ppg) and Peyton Willis (15.5), played against Iowa, as did guard E.J. Stephens, who scored a season-high 22. But Minnesota was without four players, most notably starting center Eric Curry and sixth man Sean Sutherlin.

Curry remains day to day with an ankle injury suffered at the end of a 71-69 loss at Michigan State on Jan. 12, Johnson said. The other absences last Sunday, which included forward Danny Ogele and walk-on guard Joey Kern, appeared to be related to Big Ten COVID-19 protocols.

With COVID in the program, whether the Gophers play Saturday, or have a full lineup if they do, is up in the air.

“It could be like the Iowa game,” Johnson said. “It’s one of those things where because of where we’re at, I can be confident and say, ‘Boom, pencil it in,’ but honestly we really take it day by day.”

Rutgers has three players scoring in double figures for the season, led by wing Ron Harper Jr.’s 16.5 points. He dropped 31 in a victory over Maryland on Jan. 15. But the Knights’ defense is the reason they have won 8 of 11 games. They’re allowing an average of 63.9 points in conference play, second only to Indiana’s 62.8.

“When your defense travels, you have the ability to play in every game,” Johnson said.

As for his own team, Johnson said he’s mostly concerned about players’ mental state after their brief pause, “Especially in Year 2 (of the pandemic).”

“Whatever happens, it’s going to happen, you can only try to live life as safe as possible and take all precautions and put yourself in position to stay health and remain healthy,” he said. “It was a good practice yesterday, but as a coach I’m more worried about their mental state, how they’re handling adversity, especially in Year 2.

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“Now, we’ve got to pivot, and for some of the older guys, it could be like, ‘Here we do again.’ I’m trying to keep these guys as motivated as possible.”

As for Curry, Johnson said what he said before the sixth-year center was held out of the Iowa game.

“With this type of injury, you don’t really push, push it. You do a little more each every day,” he said. “We need to be really smart about it. I told Eric, ‘We need you for the long haul.’ If he tweaks it, he could be out another three weeks. We need to play it safe and smart because we want him back for the rest of the year.”

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