|Who: Michigan (17-12) at Minnesota (17-10)|
|Where: William Arena, Minneapolis, MN|
|When: 4:30 PM, Saturday, February 25th, 2011|
|Radio: MGoBlue / WOMC 104.3 FM / WTKA 1050 AM|
|Last Game: Minnesota 69, Michigan 64|
Michigan heads to the Barn for a battle of bubble teams that could end up an elimination game of sorts. Minnesota has lost six of its last seven games and has seen its once promising tournament hopes collapse after losing both point guards, Devoe Joseph and Al Nolen, to transfer and injury. A month ago, Minnesota was 16-4 and 5-3 in the conference, now they are just 17-10 (6-9). But all hope is not lost in Minnesota. The Gophers three remaining games might be the easiest of any Big Ten team as they host Michigan and Penn State with a road trip to Northwestern. If the Gophers win out, their non-conference wins probably carry enough weight for an NCAA tournament bid. For Michigan, it’s winning time. A loss means that the Wolverines probably need to win the Big Ten Tournament for an NCAA bid.
The Gophers have plenty of big bodies to work with but have found that playing with a lineup full of 7-footers doesn’t always work out. Blake Hoffarber, one of the best shooters in the league, has been relegated to point guard duties in a role that is far from natural for him. Freshmen guards Chip Aremlin, Austin Hollins, and Maverick Ahanmisi are the only other guards left on Minnesota’s active roster. All three guards are athletic but are also generally poor shooters and turnover prone. Swingman Rodney Williams has taken a larger role in the offense but continues to be more of an athlete than a complete basketball player – although it’s worth noting that the 20% three point shooter hit not one but two threes the first time these two teams faced off.
Despite Minnesota’s troubles in the backcourt, there are still some very talented front court players. Trevor Mbakwe is one of the top three rebounders in the league and also gets to the free throw line more often than any other player. An electric athlete, Mbakwe is a match-up nightmare for Michigan at the four position. Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson are a pair of 6-foot-10 juniors that anchor the post, rebound, and block a ton of shots but can also score when given time and space on the block.
In the post-point guard era, Minnesota has generally gone big, playing Sampson, Iverson, and Mbakwe all at the same time along with Hoffarber and Williams. That’s 6-11, 6-10, 6-8, 6-7, 6-4 across the board. Tubby Smith has typically gone with a 2-3 zone when playing this lineup and all of the height does provide some problems. However, Tubby Smith is still a man-to-man coach which means that, despite their length, this group hasn’t been nearly as proficient in the zone a true zone team like Syracuse.
This lineup also struggles mightily on the offensive side of the ball. You can’t play three guys in the post and there just isn’t the perimeter quickness or, more importantly, shooting ability to make other teams pay. Minnesota’s freshmen guards provide plenty of quickness and athleticism but have also turned the ball over. A lot. Minnesota has turned the ball over on at least 22% of its possessions in each of the last five games.
Minnesota’s offense is the epitome of brute force. The Gophers rank 10th in effective field goal percentage, turnovers, and three point shooting but rank first in offensive rebounding and free throw rate. Minnesota is going to attack, attack, attack and just keep crashing the glass. Defensively, Minnesota is the best shot-blocking team in the Big Ten and also has the best two point defense and second best three point defense.They don’t foul much, but they are just an average defensive rebounding team and rarely force any turnovers.
The first thought is that you have to put Minnesota in an uncomfortable situation and make them turn the ball over. I think this means we will see a fair amount of 1-3-1 zone in this game. The bad news is that Michigan forced turnovers on 28% of Minnesota’s possessions, the Gophers worst mark of the year, in the first game and still lost. Minnesota not only shot the ball extremely well in that game, 68% effective field goal percentage, they also rebounded an impressive 56% of their missed shots. It was just a dreadful defensive performance from Michigan against a team that lost its starting point guard at halftime. If Michigan can’t force the Gophers to miss a few more shots, it’s going to be a long night at the Barn.
Pomeroy’s system likes Minnesota, 66-62 with a 30% chance of an upset. Minnesota looked particularly bad against Michigan State, but the Spartans also play a dramatically different style of basketball that is tailor made to be successful against the Gophers. It’s extremely tough to gauge both teams state of mind after disappointing home losses and knowing that the loser of the game probably has no chances of making the NCAA tournament as an at-large team.