When the Gophers take on Michigan tonight in the first game of large, fierce, quasi-rodent week, there may be a bit of a mid season shake-up. Allegedly (given that the source is an always dubious Strib reporter) Tubby Smith is ready to shelve those players who are not living up to their potential in favor of others that will inevitably disappoint as well.

While a win in any of the last three games would have been nice, they were never favored and actually played better than many expected. However, tonight is must win in a should win. Michigan is hovering somewhere between horrible Northwestern and injury plagued Penn State at the bottom of the Big Ten, but a win over the Gophers would drop Minnesota to their level, and make once optimistic Gopher fans wonder if they will have to wait a year even for an N.I.T. home game.

Because of the importance of this game, its as good a time as any for Tubby to shuffle the line up. The Kevin Payton experiment and the Jamal Abu-Shamala project may have officially ended last week, as both players saw less action than any other game this season. With these developments, the question becomes whether these are the changes that were hinted at, or if some more drastic shuffling is on the way. If more line up changes are on their way, it is anyone’s guess whether they will actually help.

Questioning the playing time for Minnesota’s two tweeners is legitimate criticism, and their presence on the bench will undoubtedly increase the athleticism and composure of the team on the court, but what else can Tubby do? Spencer Tollackson has been roundly criticized, but he is better than Jonathan Williams at just about everything (including free throw shooting). Blake Hoffarber will be getting more minutes, but he isn’t multi-faceted enough to play 30 minutes every night. Everyone wants Al Nolen to start, but that would leave Lawrence Westbrook as the best ball handler coming off the bench. Dan Coleman may never have the mental make up to be a go-to-guy, but he still the best player on team. The only new starter that really makes sense is Damian Johnson, but that seems to be such a no-brainer that it doesn’t warrant a headline or a comment from the coaching staff.

The real issue is lack of talent, and we will have to wait a year until the Gophers makes discernible progress in that area. I am all for mixing and matching, starting Travis Busch (I can’t believe I just wrote that) and letting Ryan Saunders see the court despite his messed up shoulder, but unless all of the Gophers start overachieving, they still won’t win any games they are not supposed to win.

Luckily, tonight’s game against Michigan falls into the winnable category. Despite one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, the Wolverine’s 5-15 record is indicative of how bad they are. Losses to Duke and UCLA are acceptable, but what about Central Michigan and Harvard?

The Gophers are obviously struggling, but Michigan’s many weaknesses should especially benefit the Gophers. The Wolverines can’t rebound, shoot 3’s, or play defense. Their lack of rebounding should be enough to give the Gophers the edge, and considering the sheer number of missed three pointers (more than 15 per game) Minnesota should have plenty of opportunities for fast breaks off of long rebounds. Throw in a defense that ranks 317th in the country, the Gophers shouldn’t have too many problems scoring on the offensive end either.

But all is not lost for the Wolverines. Their loss margins are steadily declining, and they may finally be catching on to John Beilein’s funky but fun (with the right players) system. And because Michigan’s problems have more to do with the system than the talent, I am a bit worried. Quite simply, with Michigan’s talent level, they should be a lot better than they are, and on the off chance that Michigan brings their A game, the Gophers could be in trouble.

Manny Harris is the best freshman in the conference that isn’t an undisciplined player for the Hoosiers. He averages more than 16 ppg, and could join the ever growing list of big guards/small forwards that have torched the Gophers this year. Deshawn Sims and Ekpe Udoh aren’t the best rebounders, but they are more athletic than Spencer Tollackson and play bigger than Dan Coleman.

But these guys lost to Harvard, and not in quiz bowl or fencing or in smoking jackets per capita! They can’t possibly win, can they?

Probably not, but don’t expect a big Gopher win either.

Minnesota’s guards should dominate on both ends of the floor, Blake Hoffarber should have plenty of opportunities to regain his confidence and his release point (Michigan is 329th in stopping three point shooters) and Al Nolen should have a relatively easy time picking apart Michigan’s defense.

The Gophers couldn’t ask for a more opportune opponent and a more opportune time to work out a few kinks, and pick up a road win in the process.

Prediction: 70-65, because Minnesota still can’t shoot free throws. And don’t worry about this being a road game, The Barnyard might actually be louder.