The Gophers need another big, more consistent game from Ralph Sampson III

[box]Gophers (12-2) vs. Michigan (11-2)
3:00 pm CST at Crisler Arena
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 1500 AM[/box]

For the Golden Gophers to make the NCAA tournament, they will have to win a game or two on the road that they are not supposed to win. Games against the bottom tier of the conference (the Iowa’s and Penn State’s of the world) should be wins.  Winning at Wisconsin and Michigan State isn’t impossible, but it would be foolish to expect a positive outcome in either of those games. Instead, the games that will make or break the season are those against the likely middle-tier of the Big Ten. These are teams that won’t compete for a conference title, but will likely make the NCAA tournament, or at the very least will be perched on the always precarious bubble in March. The Gophers let a win at Illinois slip away, twice, making the rest of the winnable but not supposed to win road games all the more important.

One would think that a road game against the #16 team in the country would be in the same group as the Wisconsin and Michigan State games, but the Wolverines are not quite there yet. They may ultimately be the 16th best team in the country. However, they have not earned that ranking yet. It is largely the product of an inflated early season ranking of #18, despite losing their best player to the NBA draft. They leaped as high as #14 after beating Memphis, who at the time was ranked #8 and is now looking at a trip to the NIT at best. Throw in a lot of wins against mediocre to bad teams, and losses to good teams, and there hasn’t been anything to move Michigan’s ranking up or down significantly. They may very well deserve their ranking, but they haven’t done anything yet to show they deserve it. Whomever wins on Sunday afternoon will pick up their best victory of the season so far.

When Michigan has the ball:

The Wolverines offensive strategy should be well-known by now to even casual Big Ten basketball fans. There will be a lot of motion, a lot of back door cuts, and even more three-point shots. The general theory of John Beilein’s offense is that the more the defense is forced to move its feet, the more out of position the defense will get, and that will create more open shots. Most of Michigan’s players are interchangeable. Jordan Morgan is the only true post player, and is the only player that won’t be shooting from the outside.  He will score most of his points on the pick and roll or cutting to the basket on the weak side. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are the designated drivers. Their ability to beat their man off the dribble either leads to a lay-up when there is poor help defense, or wide-open three-pointers if the defense collapses without being able to get back in position after a kick-out pass. Both players can make three-pointers, but outside shooting is not their strong suit. The three-point prowess comes from Evan Smotrycz (57% three-point percentage) and Zach Novak (41%). Stu Douglass is shooting only 30% from behind the three-point line but is a better shooter than the numbers indicate.

The challenge for the Gophers is that they struggle to stop dribble penetration, can’t stop the pick and roll (to the point that random blogs feel the need to break down just how bad they can be ), and bring out the best in opponents’ three-point shooting. Stopping all three of Michigan’s offensive strengths is not going to happen. Despite the obvious challenges that the Wolverines present, the Gophers were able to win in Ann Arbor last season despite losing Al Nolen in the first half and should use last year’s win as a model for this year. The Gophers let Michigan take as many three-point shots as they wanted, limited two-point shot attempts, and dominated the boards. It is absolutely imperative that the Gophers limit Michigan’s easy two-point opportunities. They are first in the country at two-point field goal percentage, making 61% of their shot attempts inside the three-point line.  They are a good three-point shooting team making 37.5% of their outside shots, but 61% vs. 37.5% is a pretty easy decision in terms of which shots to avoid. In all likelihood the Wolverines will have a better shooting percentage than the Gophers. To make up for it, the Gophers will need to force turnovers, hopefully by pressing which will also keep Michigan from setting up their offense, and to limit second chance opportunities. The Wolverines are rather dismal on the offensive glass, and in last season’s win at Michigan, the Gophers limited the Wolverines to 13 total rebounds and only three offensive rebounds.

When the Gophers have the ball:

Michigan’s defense is not even in the same ball park as their offense. They don’t force many turnovers, don’t defend the three-pointer very well, and are only slightly better defending two-point shots.  The Wolverine’s interchangeable parts make their offense difficult to stop but are a liability on defense. With the injury of Jon Horford, the 6’4” Zack Novak will be forced to match-up against Rodney Williams. The Gophers may even go with a big line-up of Ralph Sampson III and Elliot Elliason, which we saw near the end of the Illinois game, to create an even bigger size advantage.

The Wolverines do play the always annoying 1-3-1 zone which is very beatable but also rare enough to create stupid turnovers. It will be essential for the Gophers to take care of the ball and get Ralph Sampson III the ball at the top of the key. The senior center gets a lot of criticism for not being planted firmly in the lane. However, against the 1-3-1 zone, Sampson’s biggest contribution will be posting up at the top of the key where he can either take the shot or hit cutting teammates. Despite having an offense predicated on back door cuts, Michigan’s defense is very susceptible to them. As long as Austin Hollins and Rodney Williams keep moving on offense, they will find open shots. If those open shots don’t fall, they need to attack the glass. The Gophers had nine more shot attempts than the Illini the other night, and even that wasn’t enough to overcome their poor shooting. One more offensive rebound and one more put back basket could have been the difference.

What to expect:

The Gophers will either win or will lose in a blow out. It is all up to Michigan’s ability to make three-pointers. They will have plenty of open outside shots, like they do against every team. If they make them, the Gophers don’t have a chance. If they don’t, the Gophers should win if they can shoot well at all.

If the Gophers don’t win, and not many teams do on the road in the Big Ten, don’t write the team off. When the Gophers beat the Wolverines on the road last season, Michigan was 1-6 in the Big Ten. However, their young guards got better as the season went on, and they ultimately made the tournament and even won a game. There is no reason Minnesota can’t do the same thing.