CHICAGO — There's a reason why D'Angelo Russell is widely considered a top-5 pick if he chooses to enter the NBA Draft this summer. Just ask the Gophers.
Before winter prematurely ended and Minnesota lost 12 of 18 regular-season conference games, the Ohio State freshman came into Williams Arena in January and dropped 25 first-half points while defended by Andre Hollins. The Gophers adjusted in the second half as the tandem of Nate Mason and DeAndre Mathieu limited Russell to just two more points the rest of the way in an eventual 74-72 overtime loss.
Heading into a Thursday night rematch with the Buckeyes (22-9, 11-7 Big Ten) stopping Russell is Minnesota's primary focus.
"Just making his life miserable, just try to contain him the best I can," freshman Mason said. "Try to do whatever I can against him."
Watching Russell play gives NBA executives warm feelings. He can score at the rim or behind the arch, has a quick release, is good at moving without the ball and is more difficult to defend than most players since he's left-handed. He's also got good size at 6-5. Oh, yeah, and he's just a freshman.
"He's a smooth player coming off screens, nice pull-up jumper," Hollins said, "I helped off of him too much [in January] and he knocked it down."
Hollins added Wednesday that he'll "most likely" start the game out defending Russell, but expect the Gophers to give him multiple looks with Mathieu and Mason waiting in the wings.
Mathieu, while undersized, might be the best matchup against Russell. He's by far the quickest player on the team, so he's better suited at denying passing lanes.
"We tried to just not let him catch," Mathieu said of Minnesota's defensive strategy against Russell in the second half of January's loss. "Not let him get the touch."
Mason has been starting in Mathieu's place for the latter half of the season, which should help prepare him for life as Minnesota's leader in the backcourt next season. Head coach Richard Pitino told Mason last week to start being more aggressive and it's paid off. Mason, one of the team's few strong future building blocks, scored in double figures in two of his last three games. Upstaging Russell with Minnesota's season on the line would be a good way for Mason to prove doubters wrong after not being put on the Big Ten all-freshman team.
"I think he was a little bothered that he wasn't all-freshman," Pitino said. "I said, 'Listen, there's only one way to do it is to take it out on everybody else."