Michigan and its big, bad 16-1 record goes on the road to the raised court of Williams Arena to take on Minnesota, who is fresh off a competitive loss on the road to Indiana. If it's not THE most anticipated Big Ten matchup of the year so far then it's definitely one of them. Seriously - ESPN is bringing in Dick Vitale to announce this game. Unfortunately this means I have to listen to the game on the radio.
It's the first pairing of top-ten teams at The Barn since the 1970s, so naturally people are pretty excited. In fact, the game is 100% sold out, which almost never happens up here (I know, pathetic, right?).
Nevertheless, to preview the game we put together a blogger roundtable to hash out some questions about the game, get some initial takes and try to make sense of what might happen on the court on Thursday evening. We brought in Zach Travis of Maize and Brew to provide some Wolverine input and also threw Graham Filler a bone to bleed maize and blue for a minute.
1) The biggest story line of this game is Michigan's premier offense versus a stingy Gopher defense. Who has the advantage here?
Zach Travis: Before Sunday I would have said Michigan's offense, but Ohio State did a good job of keeping Michigan out of the lane and forcing the Wolverines to rely on jump shooting to try and win. Michigan had an off day -- in large part because the shots it did get off were long and contested -- and failed to complete what would have been a pretty huge comeback.
I don't think Michigan is as bad as things looked early against Ohio State, but the game does raise some concerns about how high a level Michigan can play at when facing teams that can match the Wolverines' athleticism. I think Minnesota will present an interesting matchup, and especially after the Ohio State game, this one should be a big barometer for Michigan's place near the top of the Big Ten pecking order.
Graham Filler: The Gopher defense, at home, has an advantage. Michigan clammed up against a physically tough OSU team this weekend. That sets an ugly precedent going forward for road games, although their nice comeback says a lot about the Wolverine's effort.
zipsofakron: Gotta echo the sentiments of the Michigan guys. The Gophers can and will keep up with the Wolverines in transition and in the physicality department. Plus they have the crowd at their backs, which always helps. They got dominated in the first half by Cody Zeller in the Hoosiers, but completely turned the tide in the second half. I chalk much of their deficit against Indiana against the Hoosiers just playing out-of-this-world basketball for 20 minutes, to the point that no team could hope to keep up. The Minnesota offense is nothing to scoff at, and I think their defense at home gives them the advantage.
2) This is the first game at Williams Arena featuring two top-ten teams since the 70s, so the crowd is sure to be at a high level. How big of a factor do you think homecourt advantage plays into this for Minnesota?
ZT: In one regard, I would say Sunday probably helped Michigan a lot: it was the kind of charged, away game atmosphere that Michigan's freshmen hadn't yet seen. You could tell early on that Michigan was thrown off by the crowd in Columbus (among other things), and I think the team will respond a bit better in this one. At some point in the Big Ten you have to get over the energy of an opponent's arena, and embrace the bad guy role to try and quiet the crowd. I'm interested to see if Michigan can channel its first-away-game jitters into that kind of take charge performance against Minnesota.
GF: Any road wins in the B1G are big wins. The Big Ten is just a vicious place to be playing on the road in 2013.
z: Reporting from inside the belly of the beast, I can certainly attest to how intense this will be. First off, the crowd will be at a level not seen since the late 90s. The fan base is really excited about the team and can't wait to get loud and support them. And being truly excited for the first time in more than a decade can be impactful.
Second, the players themselves will feed off the crowd's energy, hopefully providing a boost. They tapped into that somewhat against Michigan State, but this game will be on another level. I think homecourt in this instance is a tremendous advantage.
3) What does Michigan need to do to win this game?
ZT: Get to the basket. Trey Burke is a great creator on offense because of his offensive skills. When he is able to beat defenders off the dribble and use pick and rolls to get going toward the basket, it opens up opportunities for other players all over the court. Similarly, Michigan's second best scorer, Tim Hardaway Jr., thrives when working his offensive game inside out and establishing the dribble drive early to open up room for his three-point shot. When Michigan has looked its best this year, these two were getting to the basket with regularity. When Michigan hasn't looked so hot, it has shown with both of these guys relying on outside shots. Michigan wins if both these players can find a way to get to the basket against a tough Minnesota defense.
GF: Make a run. Michigan makes spectacular runs better than any other B1G team. You turn your head and zip, it's a 10-2 or 15-5 run, with Burke running the fast break and basically everyone on the floor shooting threes.
z: They need to hit their threes, plain and simple. Minnesota's defense is all about taking away the inside game and forcing their opponent to beat them from deep - and it usually works. In the Illinois game, for example, the Illini just rained down three-point attempts, but didn't make a whole lot of them. This can backfire, however. Against Duke and the first half against Indiana, the two teams could barely miss. This lead to a big buffer early on ended up in defeat for Minnesota.
4) How can the Gophers pull this one off?
ZT: Defense and rebounding. If Minnesota can slow Michigan's offense down while winning the battle on the boards, the game should stay close. Michigan has been very good for long stretches this year, but other than against the really bad teams on the schedule, Michigan has shown a tendency to lapse late in games and allow teams to make runs. If Minnesota is close and playing good enough defense to not let Michigan run away with it, the Gophers will have chances to make runs against a Michigan team that hasn't yet shown the ability to consistently go for the jugular against good competition.
GF: Please reference the Ohio State game last weekend. That's how you beat Michigan; make it physical, slow the game.
z: The Gophers need to do what they do best: play tight defense and convert in the transition game. When they're forcing turnovers and getting down the court before the defense can get set then they are really, really tough to beat. If they can keep it close in the beginning or get out early then they stand a really good chance as their second halves have been quite the spectacle recently.
5) What/who do you think is the X-factor in this game?
ZT: Nik Stauskas. For most of the year he has been widely praised when people talk about this Michigan offense, and for good reason. He is the effective third scoring option that this offense needs to survive. Stauskas provides a great outside shooting touch and an ability to get to the basket on the dribble when given the chance. When he is on his game he is an unsolvable problem for defenses: stay home and leave Burke/Hardaway one-on-one, or crash and give him open looks. Michigan's offense relies on him a lot to really punish defenses, and he just beats out Glenn Robinson III (a player who has taken on a role as a stat sheet stuffer) as the thing that puts this offense over the top.
GF: The X-Factor is Michigan's loss of invincibility. When you're undefeated, you are similar to an MLB rookie pitcher who no one can hit because no one has figured him out. Once you see the pitcher a few times, you figure out his weaknesses and he's not so difficult anymore.
That's how Michigan is. The blueprint to beating the Wolverines has been found and it lies in hunkering down on defense and pushing around their big shot recruits. Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan aside, the folks on Michigan's team are not bullies. Burke and Hardaway and Robinson and Stauskas are all scorers with NBA dreams. Push ‘em around, see what happens.
z: If the Gophers want to get out and run the court then Joe Coleman is going to be the X-factor. We saw it in the Illinois game fairly frequently, but Coleman is an under-the-radar guy who is really strong at converting in transition. He's far from a great shooter, but he plays a lot bigger than 6'4 and gets to the rim with ease. If he's converting on those attempts then he might end up being a weapon that Michigan just can't gameplan for.
6) Prediction time: How does this one turn out?
ZT: I'll confess: I haven't followed much Minnesota basketball this year. However, looking over the results so far, one has to be impressed. Minnesota looks as capable as any team in the Big Ten at hanging with the Wolverines, especially at home. Still, the homer in me thinks Michigan responds well to its first loss and first tough road game, and that while this one stays close throughout, Michigan finds a way to squeak past with a three or four point win. I'm not all that confident in that prediction to be honest, so it'll be a nerve-wracking game for sure.
GF: Michigan 62, Minnesota 56
z: Admittedly, the only Michigan game I've seen this year is their loss against Ohio State, so my impression is probably a little off. That said, the Gophers are coming off a loss against Indiana that didn't look all that bad and they are definitely hungry to defend their home court. I'm taking the Gophers in a barnburner, 72-70.