|Who: No. 13 Michigan (23-8, 13-5 B10) vs. Minnesota (19-13, 6-10 B10)|
|Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Indianapolis, IN)|
|When: 6:30 p.m. ET, Friday, March 9th, 2012|
|TV: BTN / BTN2Go.com|
|Radio: MGoBlue, 950AM, 102.9 FM, Sirius/XM 91|
|More: Big Ten Tournament Preview, Bracket, John Beilein Video, Player Videos, Pick to Click|
At least a part of every warm blooded sports fan outside the state of Minnesota with a bit of sympathy was cheering for Northwestern to make its first NCAA tournament appearance in school history. Tubby Smith’s Golden Gophers, forgotten and neglected by most, had other intentions. Minnesota and Northwestern battled back and forth into overtime before the Wildcats dropped yet another gut wrenching loss. The loss almost certainly cost Northwestern a chance at the NCAA tournament and means that Michigan will face Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal.
As in the other three Big Ten quarterfinal match-ups, Michigan and Minnesota only played once this season and will be facing off for just the second time. The first time these schools met, all the way back on New Year’s Day, feels like ages ago. Michigan survived with a victory but the margin was around two or three possessions throughout. Trey Burke played one of the best games of his career (and that’s saying something at this point), scoring 27 points on 11 shots, but it was a Tim Hardaway Jr. jump shot from the wing that iced the game late for the Wolverines. Michigan dominated the glass and won the turnover battle despite being out-shot by Minnesota.
Michigan enters the game winners of six of its last seven while Minnesota lost six of its last seven leading up to the trip to Indianapolis. Before Minnesota’s win over Northwestern on Thursday night, the Gophers hadn’t beaten a team other than Nebraska since late January.
Given Minnesota’s poor form and the fact that starting big man Ralph Sampson III is sidelined with a knee injury, most didn’t give Minnesota a chance versus Northwestern. It would have been easy to close up shop and head home for the off season but the Gophers responded by playing their best game in months and providing Michigan with plenty to think about this evening.
Keys & Scouting
Make Eliott Eliason defend the pick-and-roll. Trey Burke dominated Minnesota with the pick-and-roll in the first meeting because the Gophers sat back in the lane and allowed Burke to pick them apart. There was no hint of the hard hedge that has given Burke problems this season and the results were damning:
With Sampson likely sidelined, Eliason is one of the only remaining big men left on Tubby Smith’s bench. Eliason played well against Northwestern, grabbing 10 rebounds and scoring four points, but Michigan needs to challenge him with different screen and roll looks. Attack the hedge to draw fouls, hit the mid-range jumper if Eliason plays off, and throw Evan Smotrycz in the game for some pick-and-pop looks.
Rebounding. Michigan dominated the glass on both ends in the first meeting, rebounding 42% of its missed shots and 75% of Minnesota’s misses. Offensive rebounding opportunities are there because Minnesota ranks 10th in the Big Ten on the defensive glass but stopping the Gophers on the offensive glass is a more impressive feat. Minnesota is the third best offensive rebounding team in the Big Ten and six different Gophers grabbed at least one offensive rebound against Northwestern. Rodney Williams will be the best athlete on the floor but it will also be important to get a body on 6-foot-11, 240 pound Eliason.
Defend the three. Minnesota was able to match Northwestern in three point production, connecting on 11-of-26 triples, and that was one of the primary reasons the Gophers upset the Wildcats. In the first meeting in Ann Arbor, Minnesota was also fortunate behind the three point line, connecting on 8-of-19 threes.
The Gophers were particularly successful by getting the ball into the post and reversing it with a skip pass combined with an off ball screen. For all intents and purposes, Michigan looked particularly hopeless defending that look:
Despite touting the conference’s ninth best offense, Minnesota is actually not a bad perimeter shooting team. Julian Welch (43%), Chip Armelin (42%), Austin Hollins (39%) and Andre Hollins (38%) have all been selective but efficient from three point range in Big Ten play. Michigan will need to adjust to this look that was so successful in the first meeting.
Turnovers. Tubby Smith’s team has struggled down the stretch because they lack the pieces to adapt when their strengths are negated. Without a true creator or go-to player, Minnesota’s offense often appears directionless, resulting in the worst offensive turnover percentage in the Big Ten.
Take away open threes and the result is a collection of players trying to make a play that have a nasty turnover habit and aren’t generally very effective finishing inside. Against Northwestern, freshman guard Andre Hollins emerged as that go-to player, knocking down five threes en route to a career high 25 points, and that seemed to open up the offensive for others. Play solid defense, prevent open threes and eventually the Gophers will be forced to try to create something and make mistakes.
The first meeting was close but Michigan is a better team than Minnesota on paper. The Gophers have the advantage of having already played a game in Indianapolis but Michigan has had the upper hand when these two teams have met over the last few seasons.
Last year the Wolverines went to Indianapolis knowing that they needed a win and gutted one out against Illinois. Motivation this season is a bit more of a question mark. There’s no ‘Queme los Barcos’ type of desperation, the Wolverines are a good team trying to get better. Michigan has a legitimate chance to make a run at winning the tournament and is also playing for NCAA tournament seeding. With Georgetown and Marquette losing on Thursday, opportunity is there for the Wolverines to move up the seeding curve by Selection Sunday.
If Michigan can find any sort of shooting groove, clean up the defensive glass and force turnovers, the rest should fall into place for a solid opening performance in Indianapolis.