Golden Gophers vs. Michigan Wolverines
3:30 pm (CST) at Williams Arena (Minneapolis, MN)
TV: Big Ten Network
Further Reading: UMHoops.com
Sports, if nothing else, is unpredictable. How else could a road win against a team that seems to ruin every season once again ruin a season. Unfortunately, the improbable happened just over a month ago in Ann Arbor. The Gophers picked up a somewhat unexpected road win against the Michigan Wolverines, but lost senior point guard Al Nolen who has not played since. For the Gophers at least, the rest has been history.
Michigan’s loss to the Gophers, unpredictably, has turned around their season. The January loss to Minnesota was their sixth straight and seventh out of eight games. Since that night when they were out hustled and outplayed, they went 6-3 and are a rung above the Gophers in terms of NCAA tournament contention. The young Wolverines who don’t have a single senior, are growing up right before our eyes, and more importantly have learned how to win, but are coming off a heartbreaking loss. Their response to that loss, whether they use it as inspiration or ruminate on what could have been will go a long way in determining the outcome of their last two games. They need to beat the Gophers and Michigan State to have any chance of making the NCAA tournament. It is a tall task, and any let down will doom them.
While Michigan may be emotionally spent, the Gophers are undoubtedly reeling. Even on a night when Minnesota’s defense was close to domination, the offense hung a 48 on the board and collapsed down the stretch. Given the recent history between Michigan State and Minnesota, a four point loss doesn’t seem that bad, but the loss had to be devastating. Like the Wolverines, the Gophers need to win, and also have the opportunity to knock off a pair of bubble teams on the way. A 9-9 record should be plenty to get the Gophers into the dance, and given Minnesota’s personnel, would be something of a miracle.
Michigan’s success has paralleled the success of a pair of freshmen. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jordan Morgan have morphed themselves into Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims. Hardaway scored 20 points in the loss to the Gophers, and has scored in double figures ever since. The Gophers were a bit lucky that he made only 4-10 three pointers in that game. Morgan is also stringing together some nice performances. Despite being plagued by foul trouble, he has scored in double figures in four of the last five games. As long as he is on the floor, he is one of the more promising big men in the Big Ten.
Meanwhile, all is not well in the land of Maize and Blue. Everyone’s favorite Brian Setzer, occasional cheap shot artist Zack Novak, has seen his season turn into a train wreck. Some think he is fatigued, others that he is getting too beat up since he moved back to the power forward spot. Whatever it is, it can’t continue if the Wolverines are going to complete their season long turnaround. Novak is 0 for his last 14 from the field and 3 of his last 21. He hasn’t made a basket since February 16 and hasn’t made a three pointer February 12. His effort is great, and you have to give credit to a kid that small going up against players so big, but at some point, you can’t continue to keep a slumping player on the floor that long.
In Gopher land, the never ending debate over what line-up is best still hasn’t ended. Chip Armelin and Austin Hollins and their promise and peril gave the Gophers some life against Michigan State, but ultimately couldn’t get the job done. The alternative to the two freshmen in the back court has been the four posts, which works well on defense but is plodding and down right ugly on offense. It may be time for Tubby to compromise, because, frankly, neither is working. I’d like to see three posts, plus either Hollins or Armelin joining Blake Hoffarber in the back court. It still gives the Gophers a considerable size advantage, particularly against a team with size issues like Michigan. More importantly, it puts two potential outside shooters on the court at the same time and a player that can create his own shot. The Gophers’ offense hasn’t functioned properly since Nolen went out, but two actual, real-life guards gives it a chance to be better than disastrous.
Despite Michigan’s disastrous start to the conference season and Minnesota’s so far disastrous finish, Saturday afternoon’s game will keep one team in the vicinity of the bubble for another few days. Both teams still control their own destiny, and with how the season has played out so far, there has to be some satisfaction in that.