|Who: Minnesota (14-4) at Michigan (11-8)|
|Where: Crisler Arena, Ann Arbor, MI|
|When: January 22nd, 2011, 7:00 PM|
|TV: Big Ten Network|
|Radio: MGoBlue / WOMC 104.3 FM / WWWW 102.9 FM / Sirius 90 / XM 196|
|Opposition Blog: From the Barn|
|Pick to Click|
Over the last two seasons, Michigan has dominated Minnesota in an almost inexplicable fashion. The Wolverines have topped the Gophers in four straight games despite being underdogs in three of the four contests. Michigan’s wins have been important, namely the 2009 game at the Barn that cemented Michigan’s NCAA tournament bid. The last four wins over Minnesota have all ended Michigan losing streaks of two or three games. When the goings been tough, playing Minnesota has been just what the doctor ordered for the Wolverines.
Now here we are again. Michigan limps into the game in a hapless manner, trudging through a five game losing streak. On the other hand, Minnesota brings the more talented team to Ann Arbor on a two game winning streak and is ranked 15th in the country. Will Michigan top Minnesota again or will Michigan reminisce about catch phrases like “Queme Los Barcos” rather than looking forward to the rest of the season.
Minnesota’s top 15 ranking somewhat masks the Gophers’ tumultuous season. The Gophers beat North Carolina and West Virginia before Thanksgiving and were immediately declared national contenders. A home loss to a mediocre Virginia team, an injury to Al Nolen, and DeVoe Joseph’s personal issues forced the Gophers to slowly fade out of the national spotlight. Nolen recovered in time for Big Ten play but Joseph was dismissed from the team and the Gophers now sit at 3-3 after a difficult early conference schedule. Minnesota lost at Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State but notched home wins over Indiana, Purdue, and Iowa. Minnesota has a favorable conference schedule down the stretch and surviving the middle portion of the schedule could set up an intriguing finish.
Minnesota’s offense is very good because the Gophers do two things as well as anyone in the league: rebound their missed shots and get to the free throw line. Minnesota is the best offensive rebounding team in the conference, pulling down 39% of its missed shots. Over the course of the season, the Gophers have traveled to the free throw line more often than any other Big Ten team with a free throw rate (FTA/FGA) of 48%. Despite frequent trips to the line, Minnesota makes just 66% of its free throw attempts, 264th nationally. Minnesota converts a high percentage of twos, 52%, but shoots a more average 33% from three point range. Turnovers are also a problem as the Gophers cough it up on 1 out of every 5 possessions.
Minnesota’s identity is also well defined on the defensive end: block shots, defend twos, and don’t foul. Opponents shoot just 41% from two point range versus the Gophers but manage to connect on 36% of their threes. Minnesota blocks an astounding 17% of its opponents shots, a mark that ranks 5th nationally, thanks to three of the Big Ten’s top ten shot blockers (Sampson, Mbakwe, and Iverson). The drawbacks to the Gopher defense are that Minnesota is just average on the defensive glass and rarely forces turnovers.
Photo Credit: Rick Burtzel
Personnel wise it all starts with the uber-athletic power forward Trevor Mbakwe. Mbakwe is not just a rebounding machine, he also converts 61% of his two point attempts while getting to the line more often than any other player in the Big Ten (FTA/FGA 89%). His only real weakness is that he shoots just 61% from the free throw line. Mbakwe is joined down low by juniors Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson. Sampson averages 10 points per game and has above average scoring ability with his back to the basket but is known more for his shot blocking prowess. Iverson isn’t quite as efficient of a scorer as Sampson but he is a stronger rebounder and also a competent shot blocker.
When Minnesota needs a basket, it is typically Blake Hoffarber that answers the call. Hoffarber shoots 40% from three point range and also knocks down a respectable 52% of his twos. The difference between Hoffarber this year and previous years is that he’s developed into a legitimate setup man, assisting 25% of the made field goals while he’s on the floor. Hoffarber is joined in the backcourt by Al Nolen, a slashing guard that has scored almost half of his points (56 of 118) at the free throw line and shoots 36% on twos and 30% on threes.
6-foot-7 Rodney Williams has NBA athleticism and is projected in some mock drafts but the sohpomore’s offensive game continues to lag behind his raw talents. Williams shoots 59% on twos thanks to his ability slashing to the hoop but has made just 2 of 23 threes and shoots 50% at the free throw line.
The strengths of Michigan’s defense directly correlate to the strengths of Minnesota’s offense. Minnesota’s offense thrives crashing the offensive glass and getting to the free throw line while Michigan’s defense is based on defensive rebounding and limiting opposition free throw attempts. Michigan’s offense is constructed to exploit a weakness in Minnesota’s defense, as Michigan prefers to shoot the three point shot and the long ball is the primary weakness of the Minnesota defense. If Michigan is able to win some of these critical statistical battles — defensive rebounding, free throw attempts, and three point shooting — the Wolverines should have a chance to win this game down the stretch.
Pomeroy likes Michigan, barely, predicting Michigan to win, 66-65, with a 55% chance at the win. That’s about as close as it gets in terms of predictions so it’s safe to say that this one is a toss up. Nobody is quite sure where this team is at mentally after a trying 1-6 record over the last several weeks.