Have the Michigan Wolverines finally figured out Jim Beilien’s dare I say high-powered version of the Princeton offense? After struggling mightily in both conference and non-conference play, they have put together their first three game winning streak of the year. While it is not as impressive as beating Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin in consecutive games, for a team that many feared had forgotten how to win, it is a step in the right direction.
However, for all those people declaring “Look out, here comes Michigan!” it would be prudent to take a small step back and examine their three wins. The first victory of the streak came at home, to Penn State. This “non-loss” was aided and abetted by Penn State’s starting back court, which set the tone for the enire team by combining for 23 points on 7-24 shooting. Their next win came at Iowa, which as much of the Big Ten has come to find out, is no small feat. But once again, the Wolverines received their fair share of help, as Iowa shot 36.5 percent. Their final win of the season, a win better than any Minnesota has so far this season, came at the free throw line, as Michigan made 20 free throws and Ohio State attempted 3. Three wins, yes, but three wins that can be explained by poor play by their opponents.
Of course, Minnesota hasn’t won three Big Ten games in a row since February of 2005.
Minnesota is favored to win, and they should be. On paper they are a better team than Michigan, and not too long ago they dominated in Ann Arbor. However, since Minnesota’s seniors secured Tubby Smith’s 400th career victory at Michigan, the Wolverines have learned how to win.
Before this streak, Michigan was letting teams win that were really should have lost. They lost at Wisconsin even though they had 13 more offensive rebounds than the Badgers, and only allowed them to shoot 9 free throws. They lost to an Iowa team that has only two road wins (the other at Northern Iowa) on the season. And they lost, lost, lost, to bad teams in the pre-season. But now, at least, they are able to take advantage when another team struggles.
Needless to say this is not good news for Minnesota. Utilizing slashing guards and the pick and roll, Minnesota was within 4 points with 4 minutes left at Wisconsin. In a game that no one expected them to win, and only a few people thought they would even try to win, Minnesota played well enough to be able to blame the loss on a few bad bounces, a bad call, and a bad big man. It was an improvement, but not enough to erase the drubbing a week ago at home to a previously horrible Illinois team.
Michigan has won when other teams fail to score, and Minnesota has been bad offensively. Against Illinois they shot only 33% (20% in the second half. At Wisconsin, they repeatedly missed lay-ups and dunks on their way to 25% shooting inside the three point line. If there is a repeat of either of these performances, Minnesota will probably lose their 4th home game of the Big Ten season.
Minnesota’s seniors, trying to salvage at least respectability, called a players only team meeting the other day. Michigan credits a similar meeting for turning their season around, so maybe it will do the same for the Gophers. For team desperately needing some accountability from the supposed leaders of the team, this is at least a little encouraging. After the meeting, Lawrence McKenzie explained “I think it was good to let the young guys know how important it is to us. We we’re feeling bad, because we felt like we should be doing more.” Spencer Tollackson added “People had to be called out and be held more accountable by their teammates.” One can only hope the seniors called the meeting so they could be called out.
Perhaps Tubby Smith, who does not need to call closed door meetings to get his point across, said it best.
Talk is cheap. You (have) got to do it on the court. That’s all I tell them. All the talk and all the psychology is nothing. You just have got to do it between the lines. It’s all between the ears to get it done, and in the heart you know, that’s where it is.
Talk is cheap, and I don’t think Spencer Tollackson and Dan Coleman are headed for a motivational speaking career, but I don’t see the Gophers shooting woes continuing. They shot almost 60% at Michigan, and all the starters played well. I don’t expect it to be particularly pretty, but even an average game should be enough to beat Michgian. But unlike earlier in the year, if Minnesota gives the game away, the Wolverines will gladly accept it.
Prediction: Minnesota 75 – Michigan 63
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