Wolverine fans are anxious to get the taste of Sunday's loss against Ohio State out of their mouths. It won't be easy though as the first opportunity will come Thursday night on the road against another top team in Minnesota. Similar to Ohio State, the Golden Gophers are highly ranked (#9 in the AP Poll), only have one loss in conference play (Indiana on the road), and have one of the best home court advantages in the Big Ten. This game is not necessarily a "must win" for the Wolverines, but improving on the glaring miscues made in the Ohio State game will be key.
The Golden Gophers
Minnesota has struggled in recent years under coach Tubby Smith. He holds a 118-66 record at Minnesota over his 6 seasons, but he has not taken his team to the NCAA Tournament in the last two seasons, never gotten past the first round, and has never finished above 7th in the Big Ten during the regular season. For a coach with a national championship under his belt, those are some concerning stats. The good news for their fans is that the tide appears to have turning for the better. Minnesota may not have recorded many impressive wins during the non-conference slate, but they cruised to a 12-1 non-conference record and only lost to #3 Duke on a neutral court. They then followed this impressive performance up with wins over MSU, Northwestern, and Illinois. They did lose on the road to Indiana, but they did so in a performance similar to Michigan's game against Ohio State; starting off badly, but making it very close at the end and nearly stealing a win. Even if Minnesota isn't dominating the national story lines, there is no doubt that this is an improved team that will be no pushover for opponents.
The Gophers are a well balanced team. They are #7 in overall KenPom rating with the #9 offense and the #17 defense. They have shooters (Andre Hollins & Austin Hollins), they have depth (10 players with 9.5+ minutes per game), and most notably they have a very good frontcourt. Rodney Williams carried the frontcourt load last season for Minnesota, but that was primarily because of the injury to Trevor Mbakwe early in the year. This season, Mbakwe is back and the results have been significant. Compared to last season, Minnesota is averaging 6 more rebounds per game and has even shown improvement already in Big Ten play, averaging 3.4 more offensive rebounds per game so far. Their overall Big Ten rebounding has decreased, but that is likely a by-product of a much more efficient offense (1.14 points per possession compared to 1.04 last season). Along with this, Minnesota is also averaging 1.5 more blocks per game than they did a year ago.
This team's depth and improvement show clearly in the team's performance so far. Andre Hollins leads the team with 27.6 minutes, 14.4 points, and 3.6 assists per game, doing all of this as just a sophomore. Austin Hollins isn't far behind, averaging 10.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 2.0 steals per game. Sophomore Joe Coleman has also come up big this season, including his 29 point performance against Illinois. Rodney Williams is also a major contributor with 12.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. Mbakwe is the difference maker though. He only averages 20.9 minutes per game, but he has played at least 23 minutes in each Big Ten game and has averaged 11.7 points per game during that period. Mbakwe has a very high ceiling and he is continuing to improve as the year goes on. Overall, this is a deep and talented roster that can do many things schematically, but their "bread and butter" will ultimately be their inside game, something Michigan tends to struggle against.
Keys To The Game
With Minnesota, the main challenge for Michigan is going to be creating an inside presence. Michigan has not used a lot of post play this season and likely won't in this one, but Michigan really needs to get something going in the paint. Minnesota leads the Big Ten in offensive rebounding and blocks and while Michigan's big men have improved significantly in their rebounding this season, but this will be one of the toughest challenges they have faced all season. They held up pretty well against Pittsburgh, Kansas State, and NC State, but Minnesota's frontcourt may be even better than the ones on those three teams. Getting the big men active on the offensive side will be important, but perhaps the biggest question will be whether they can play well enough on defense to contain Minnesota. They had some problems guarding the Buckeyes in the team's most recent game and struggled moving over to help, which will be vitally important in this match-up.
One of the things that Michigan really struggled to do in its game against Ohio State was to create ball movement and set screens. Part of this was due to the defensive play of Aaron Craft, but many of Michigan's players also settled for contested shots that simply didn't fall. One of the things Michigan has prided itself on this season has been its desire to share the basketball and attack from different directions. Getting around Minnesota's defenders will be easier than getting around Ohio State's defenders, particularly on the outside, but this will still be important for Michigan's offense to get back on track. Along with this, moving the ball should help set up open shots and get Michigan out of its shooting slump. Michigan did not shoot well against Nebraska or Ohio State and more shots will need to fall to win this game. Expect a bounce back game for Michigan's perimeter players. For Michigan, their best chance is get ahead of Minnesota. If Michigan's frontcourt can at least minimize the amount of damage Minnesota's do both on the glass and scoring, Michigan's backcourt will likely be too much for the Golden Gophers to handle.
Players To Watch
There are a few Michigan players that merit attention in this one. First, considering Michigan's need to play well in the paint, Mitch McGary will be an important player in this one. McGary's minutes have gradually been going up and his play has really been improving. Although he is still racking up fouls, they're occurring much less frequently and in much better situations. He had some defensive gaffes against Ohio State, but he still had some big blocks, rebounds, and points in the game. The next player to watch is Nik Stauskas. Not necessarily because he is predicted to have a great game, but because of his previous game. He had his worst game of the season against Ohio State and is in desperate need of a rebound game. He looked unsettled in the road environment, took risky shots, and frankly, just didn't convert. Odds are that he will be a lot better in this one, but Michigan needs a lot more from him than 0 points and poor defense in 23 minutes to win big road games. The final player to watch in this game is Tim Hardaway, Jr. Over his career, he has built the reputation of not showing up for big games. He ended up with 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 1 assist against Ohio State, but he really struggled in the 1st half and never got into a rhythm. His consistency on the road will need to take a step forward if Michigan expects to contend with the top teams in the conference away from home.
Prediction: Michigan by 1
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