Golden Gophers vs. Michigan Wolverines

6:00 pm (CST) at Crisler Arena (Ann Arbor, Michigan)

TV: Big Ten Network

Someone at some point in not so recent history came up with the recipe for a conference championship. That recipe, win all your home games and half your road games, has proven to be prescient in recent years. With the current scheduling in the Big Ten, nine home wins and four or five road wins would result in a conference record of 14-4 or 13-5, and most years, at least a share of the Big Ten Championship.

Those road wins don’t come against the cream of the crop.  Conference championships, or at least a trip to the top of the standing in conference play, are won by protecting the home court and beating up the bottom feeders on the road. As we’ve seen time and time again, protecting the home court is one of the easier tasks in college basketball, regardless of opponent.  Upsets more often than not happen on a team’s home court, and even when they lose, home teams keep things closer than expected. Look no further than Michigan’s close losses to Kansas and Ohio State. If the Gophers want to compete for a Big Ten title or stake their claim among the best team’s in the conference, it is imperative to win those “easier” road games. Beginning against Michigan on Saturday evening, the Gophers have that chance.

Michigan usually plays up to their opponents, and the #15 Gophers playing on their home court after a few tough road losses should be all the motivation they need. The Gophers usually play down to their opponents, but you can bet that Tubby Smith will have his team plenty motivated after four straight, at the time season crippling losses to the Wolverines. Michigan might be having a down year, but the Gophers have no right to overlook them.

It has been a rebuilding year in Ann Arbor, as everyone expected with the departures of Gopher killers Deshawn Sims and Manny Harris. The talent level is way down without the pair of all conference performers, but the team is better, incredibly young, but really, strangely, almost impossibly better. That isn’t to say that the Wolverines are a good team. They’ll bring an 11-8 (1-5 in the Big Ten) record and a five game losing streak into Saturday. Their two most recent losses were blowouts at Northwestern and Indiana. Their only win was at home against Penn State. Given Penn State’s recent successes, one would have to consider this a quality win and probably their best of the season other than beating Clemson on the road in the ACC-Big Ten challenge.

Michigan’s gimmicky offensive and defensive schemes should be intimately familiar to shell shocked Gophers fans. On offense they shoot tons of three pointers (44% of their field goal attempts are behind the three point line). On defense, they have shied away a bit from their 1-3-1 zone trapping, but they also haven’t played the Gophers, and Minnesota has not shown an ability to score against any zone, let alone one that triple-teams the ball handler at all times. Michigan’s lack of success is directly related to the lack of success of these two gimmicks.

Michigan loves to shoot the three, but can’t seem to make them. They are making less than a third of their three point attempts, and has had little success in tracking down their misses, ranking 286th in the country in offensive rebounding. They avoid turnovers (24th best in the country), especially steals (second best in the country). They are an above average free-throw shooting team, but rank 337th in getting to the line. This may be a case of the scheme not fitting the players. If they focused more on getting the ball inside and getting to the line, they might not have the second worst offense in the Big Ten.

Defensively, Michigan has been as successful as the Gophers. Both teams give up .947 points per possession. That incredibly annoying only because it works 1-3-1 had been the fixture of Michigan’s defense, but at some point John Beilien decided it just wasn’t working, and is playing a lot more man to man. Michigan isn’t a tall team or a very athletic team. Their starting line-up runs 6’4”, 6’4”, 6’3”, 6’8” and 6’9”. With a straight up man to man defense, most of the time, Michigan is just out-manned.

Inconsistent play and lots of losses should almost be expected from a team so young. The Wolverines have no seniors, four juniors, five sophomores, and six freshman. That is a good nucleus of young players who could make some noise a few years from now, but right now, they are the youngest team in any of the big six conferences and only eight teams are younger in the entire country. Darius Morris is Michigan’s best player, scoring 15 points per game with 7 assists and 3.5 rebounds. He is most comfortable driving through the lane and is an able finisher. Al Nolen will need to say in front of him, and should be able to give him a bit of space considering Morris is only a 26.1% three point shooter. Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn’t have his father’s UTEP two-step, but does have the inflated ego of most children of NBA stars (except ours of course) attempting 5 or more three pointers per game 12 times while only connecting on 28.8% of them. Zack Novak is what passes for a wily veteran at Michigan these days. He is finally being allowed to play something other than power forward, and is scoring and rebounding more despite being farther away from the basket. Of course, if I was 6’5” and charged with playing power forward in the Big Ten, I’d feel a lot better being farther away too. Novak was the only Wolverine who struggled against the Gophers last year. Jordan Morgan is Michigan’s only real inside presence, and after a hot start to his career, has scored in double figures only twice since December 14. Stu Douglass isn’t in the starting line-up but his playing time suggests he should be. He is Michigan’s best outside shooter and had 17 points against Northwestern but had been struggling mightily before that potential slump stopper.

The Gophers will have the edge in talent and should have the edge in motivation, but strange things happen against Michigan. Manny Harris and Deshawn Sims certainly didn’t help the Gophers beat Michigan the last few years. We will find out Saturday if it is the players or the system that keeps ruining Minnesota’s seasons.

Who to watch for the Gophers:
Trevor Mbakwe is the player the Gophers needed a year ago, especially on the defensive end. He is the only interior player the Gophers have who can reliably float to the perimeter and stop open three pointers.

What to watch for the Gophers:
With a defense so susceptible to three point shots, will the Gophers abandon the automatic post double-team? They should if they want to win.

Who to watch for Michigan:
Jordan Morgan will need to be in early season form against Minnesota’s imposing front line. If he gets a few easy baskets early in the game, Minnesota will have to double team him, and Morgan should be in position to set up his teammates for some open outside shots. Of course, Morgan only has 13 assists on the season, so he’ll have to be less selfish to take advantage of the Gopher defense.

What to watch for Michigan:
Just how many three pointers can they shoot in a game? Gopher opponents already shoot 39.1% of their field goal attempts from behind the three point line, and Michigan does that on a regular basis. We may see a relatively rare 50% or more of field goal attempts from behind the three point line. Let’s hope they miss more than a few of those.

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