|Who: No. 5 Michigan (16-1, 3-1 B1G) at No. 9 Minnesota(15-2, 3-1 B1G)|
|Where: Williams Arena (Minneapolis, MN)|
|When: 7:00 p.m., Thursday, January 17th, 2013|
|Radio: MGoBlue, 950 AM, 102.9 FM, Sirius/XM: 91|
Michigan has little time to lick its wounds after losing at Ohio State on Sunday. The Wolverines are back on the road against a yet another top-15 foe, the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
After experts proclaimed Minnesota’s greatness in non-conference play only to be disappointed in Big Ten play in each of the past two seasons — The Gophers were a combined 23-2 over the last two non-conference campaigns but just 12-24 in Big Ten play over that span — it finally appears that Minnesota is ready to contend in the Big Ten. Tubby Smith’s team is healthy, has improved its guard play (somewhat) and already a has a pair of nice conference wins (Michigan State at home and at Illinois). Now the Gophers will look to do something they haven’t accomplished since 2008: beat Michigan at home.
John Beilein and Tubby Smith’s teams both have had steady statistical profiles throughout their time at their respective Big Ten schools. Beilein’s teams have been heavy on threes, low on turnovers and weak on the glass. Tubby’s have generally been great rebounding teams blessed with size but handicapped by turnovers. Over the last five seasons, Beilein has won 7-of-10 contests with two of Tubby’s three wins coming in Beilein’s first season. For whatever reason, Beilein’s brand of basketball has matched up well with Tubby’s. This year should be the ultimate test as both coaches enter tonight’s game with rosters that are clearly the most talented of their tenures.
Minnesota’s offense is fueled by the offensive rebound. The Gophers have rebounded an astounding 48 percent of their missed shots this year and are easily the best offensive rebounding team in the nation. Stopping Minnesota on the offensive glass is nearly impossible, limiting the Gophers even a bit is a win in itself. Minnesota is a pretty good shooting team – 52% on twos and 35% on threes – but cashes in at the line with a free throw rate (FTA/FGA) of 45%. To their credit, the Gophers have shot the ball extremely well in Big Ten games both inside (52%, 2nd) and outside (46%). Minnesota’s undoing has been the turnover, the Gophers cough the ball up on 22% of their possessions and a league worst 24% in Big Ten games.
Michigan’s defense is designed to negate the two strengths of Minnesota’s offense but has struggled to exploit the Gophers’ primary weakness. The Wolverines are the best defensive rebounding team in the Big Ten and surrender fewer free throw attempts than any other team in the country. They just don’t force turnovers.
While Minnesota’s offense is the second best in the Big Ten, its defense lags behind, ranking 8th among Big Ten teams in conference games and 17th nationally for the season. The Gophers defensive undoing is ironic given their offensive strength: defensive rebounding. The Gophers allow their opponents to rebound 35% of their missed shots, which ranks 282nd nationally. For whatever reason, consistency on the defensive glass has been absent all season and doesn’t appear to be improving as Indiana recently gouged the Gophers on the offensive glass. The rest of Minnesota’s defensive profile is solid across the board but unspectacular. The Gophers rank in the top-102 spots nationally in terms of forcing turnovers, defending twos and threes, and not sending opponents to the free throw line. Their aggressive style of defense translates into unusually high steal (14.3%, 7th) and block (16.7%, 6th) percentages.
Minnesota gets balanced production out of its five starters as all five players average 9.5 points or more per game. Point guard Andre Hollins leads the way at 14.4 points and 3.6 assists per game. Hollins is the best ball-screen scorer in the Big Ten not named Trey Burke. He’s more of a scorer than a distributor and if you go under a ball screen he’ll knock down threes all day long. He’s a 43 percent three point shooter on the season and certainly appreciates the big occasion, scoring 41 points against Memphis earlier this season.
Hollins is joined by another, taller but unrelated, Hollins in the backcourt. Austin Hollins is also a 40 percent three point shooter but he’s much more of a catch-and-shoot threat than an off the dribble three point shooter. Joe Coleman rounds out the backcourt and is more of a power guard, more effective attacking the basket, usually in transition, than shooting jumpers in half court settings. Coleman exploded for 29 points at Illinois but hasn’t been a regular scoring threat for the Gophers.
The Wolverines will have their hands full with the Gopher front line of Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams. Per Synergy Sports, Mbakwe is the most efficient back to the basket player in the Big Ten with at least 15 post ups, averaging 1.03 points per post up possession. Williams is one of the best shot blockers and offensive rebounders in the Big Ten – but Mbakwe is even better. Both players are great athletes that have been around the block in this league. Williams has transformed himself from a skinny guard without a jumpshot to a four man who’s comfortable with his back to the basket or stepping out to shoot the occasional three. Both players should provide a difficult match-up challenge for Michigan’s front court of Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary.
The contrasting styles of these two programs makes this match-up particularly intriguing. Is Michigan’s improved rebounding attack good enough to not only slow Minnesota on the offensive glass but exploit the Gophers’ weak defensive rebounding? The Wolverines have been able to get the best of this match-up in the past despite being dominated on the glass so that could be an important feather in the cap. For all the talk of Trey Burke struggling (at times) against Ohio State in his career, he’s destroyed the Gophers. Burke averaged 28.5 points and three assists in two games last season with a remarkable 86% effective field goal percentage.
Ken Pomeroy projects a 71-67 Minnesota win, giving the Gophers a 63% chance of remaining perfect at home. This is Michigan’s only shot against the Gophers and it’s an important game for a Michigan program that didn’t lose consecutive games until the end of last season. A loss would put Michigan two games back in the loss column with road trips to Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin remaining on the docket. A win would send the Wolverines into their bye weekend with renewed confidence before hosting Purdue.