The Minnesota Golden Gophers survived February, their cruelest month, and now head to Michigan to start the month of madness. Despite the encouraging win over Iowa earlier this week, Minnesota is still firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble. Michigan, who long ago secured their spot in the NCAA tournament, continues to battle Michigan State for the conference title.
Things would be so different now if a few more shots fell for the Gophers when they played the Wolverines in the Big Ten opener. No one likes to talk about luck because doing so seems to discredit the winning team while simultaneously absolving the losing team of responsibility, but luck is real, and may have decided the outcome in the Gophers three point loss. The Gophers made only 1-15 two-point jump shots, and it turned out they were two shots short of a win that, looking back, would have secured a spot in the NCAA tournament. The real shame, beside obviously losing a winnable game against the potential conference champion, is that Minnesota’s best defensive performance of the conference season went to waste. Michigan was held to 1.03 points per possession, their third-worst offensive performance of the conference season. That was quite the accomplishment for the Gophers, who are still the worst defensive team in the conference. The Wolverines were somewhat hampered by the loss of Glenn Robinson III, who left in the first half with an ankle injury, but the Gophers haven’t been able to slow down fully healthy or fully injured opponents in conference play.
Minnesota’s suddenly (and temporarily?) improved offense is coming off a 95 point game against Iowa, and should have plenty of opportunities to score a lot of points against Michigan. The Wolverine defense ranks 10th in conference play, and has allowed their last five opponents to score at least a point per possession. Basketball, at its simplest, is about putting the ball in the basket, and Michigan allows that to happen often. They have the worst field-goal defense in the conference, allowing their opponents to make 51.5% of their two point shots. Their three-point defense ranks fifth in the conference, but there isn’t much need to shoot from the outside when the inside is so open.
A mediocre at best defensive team can’t challenge for the conference title without a spectacular offense, and that is exactly what Michigan has. It is the best in the conference play, and third best in the country. They are the best shooting team in the conference, making 39% of their three-point attempts and 54% of their two-point attempts. They also rarely commit turnovers, meaning they get a lot of shots, which they make at a very high rate. Perhaps the only criticism of their offense is that they don’t really manufacture points. The offense is great when the shots fall, but because they don’t get a lot of offensive rebounds or get to the free-throw line particularly often, the offense can becomes pretty pedestrian. That is what happened at The Barn in January, and in each of Michigan’s three Big Ten losses.
The key to slowing down Michigan is to slow down Nik Stauskas. The favorite for Big Ten player of the year is dynamic offensive player, and not just a jump shooter this year (as you’ll hear about 100 times on Saturday, even though he was more than a jump shooter last year too.) He’s the 80th most efficient player in the country, and will be a difficult match-up for Austin Hollins presumably. The key to stopping Stauskas is to limit his shot attempts. In a three-game stretch in early February, he attempted six or fewer shots in three straight games, and didn’t score more than 10 points in any of those games. Michigan lost two of those games. But putting Hollins on Stauskas causes other problems. Are Joey King or Charles Buggs supposed to slow down Glenn Robinson III. Do Andre Hollins or DeAndre Mathieu have enough size to guard Caris Lavert? The answer to all these questions earlier this season was yes, but then Zak Irvin made five three-pointers, and the Wolverines pulled away in the closing moments to win the first Big Ten game of the season.
Minnesota’s tournament profile stacks up well compared to a lot of bubble teams, but to truly secure a spot in the field, they need a good road win. The selection committee wants to include teams that are likely to perform well, and since none of the games are played on a team’s home court, it only makes sense that road wins are considered important criteria. Saturday’s game presents a great opportunity, and great timing, for the Gophers to prove they belong in the NCAA tournament.