One score and 16 years ago, midway through the Big Ten season, the #10 Golden Gophers played the #5 Michigan Wolverines, and lost a heart breaker 86-80. It was the last time two top 10 teams played each other in The Barn. On Thursday we get to do it all over again. After two miracle comebacks fell just short, both Minnesota and Michigan hope to stay in second place in the Big Ten and keep their title hopes alive.  The loser won’t be out of the title picture, but may need to adjust their expectations a bit.

This is a big one. This is THE BIG ONE for every Gopher fan under the age of 40. Three generations of Gopher fans have never seen or even been alive for a top ten showdown in The Barn. If you are lucky enough to have a ticket, and they are long gone if you don’t, for the love of Goldy make some noise, stomp feet, pound on some exposed surfaces, and do whatever you can to will the team to victory. Opportunities like this are rare, and we all must make the most of it.

How to watch and listen:
The venerable Dick Vitale makes his epic return to the Venerable Williams Arena as ESPN will be televising the game. ESPN 1500 AM will carry the game on the radio. We’ll be tweeting too, assuming our hands aren’t shaking too badly.

How the Gophers got here:
After facing the Hoosiers and the assembled thousands in Assembly Hall, the Gophers wilted during the final ten minutes of the first half before putting up their third straight 50 point second half. They came up short, but the effort was heartening, and showed that the Gophers can be competitive even under the most extreme circumstances.

How the Wolverines got here:
A day after Minnesota’s epic collapse and near comeback, the Wolverines replicated the Gophers experience. They fell behind the Buckeyes by 21 midway through the first half, eventually got within two points late in the second half, eventually lost by three.

On the season the Wolverines are 16-1 and 3-1 in the Big Ten. Besides their loss to the Buckeyes, they have played the soft underbelly of the Big Ten, humiliating Northwestern, Iowa, and Nebraska. In the non-conference season, they beat North Carolina State which is undoubtedly a good win. Their other non-conference wins against the likes of Kansas State and Pittsburgh should prove to be good on Selection Sunday too.

Gopher statistic to watch:
I try not to get caught up in the talk of slow starts or big finishes. The final score is the only score that matters, and if a team is capable of scoring 50 points over 20 minutes, fewer points over a shorter time span should not be a concern. For one night only, I think the first five minutes could decide the game. The Barnyard, and tomorrow we are all The Barnyard, needs to be involved before the ball is even tipped. A fast Michigan start or a slow Gopher start could suck the life out of the gym, and negate what should be a huge home court advantage. The Gophers must be within a possession by the time the starts come back in after the first line change.

Wolverine statistic to watch:
For all the attention that Minnesota’s offensive rebounding is getting, Michigan’s equally impressive defensive rebounding has been largely ignored. They are the second best defensive rebounding team in the country allowing opponents to grab only 23.7% of their missed shots. The Gophers grab about half of their missed shots. Something has to give. If Michigan can control the glass they’ll probably control the game.

The most important Gopher:
If the Gophers have any advantage over the Wolverines, it should be in the middle. The Wolverines have a lot of 6’6″ small forwards/shooting guards, but not much of a post-presence. If Mbakwe can establish himself inside, and get Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary in foul trouble, it should open the floor for the Gopher guards. Obviously, his rebounding will be important too.

The most important Wolverine
If you have finally forgotten about what Trey Burke did to the Gophers last year, this will be an unfortunate reminder. In the first game he scored 27 points on 8 of 11 shooting. In the second game, he scored 30 points on 11-14 shooting. If he does that again, and he is very capable of doing it again, he should let us all know ahead of time so we can get on with our lives. He hasn’t slowed down after his excellent freshman season. He is scoring 18 points per game with seven assists, three rebounds, and a steal. He can be slowed, and the Gophers will need to to have much of a chance.

Key match-up:
Austin Hollins and Tim Hardaway Jr. are both athletic, lanky, and can score a lot of points in a hurry. Hollins can be susceptible to disappearning on the offensive end of the court, and Hardaway can be susceptible to needing to disappear (he’s shot worse than 40% from the field seven times this season). Hollins’ mission is to balance his offensive and defensive effectiveness. Hardaway’s mission is to find balance within his team.

What to expect:
If the Gophers have shown us one thing this year, it is their ability to bounce back. I fully expect them to do so again. The Wolverines are coming off their first loss, and should face an incredibly hostile environment. Michigan would win on a neutral floor, and will win a lot of games on neutral floors in March, but they haven’t seen Williams Arena at its rowdiest in 36 years.