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The Two Cent Preview: Michigan @ Minnesota

Right, so there's a game tomorrow that is probably the most anticipated Michigan basketball game in nearly 10 years.  Actually, I don't even think that sentence needs to be as heavily qualified as it is.  Tomorrow is definitely the most important game Michigan has played in ten years.  Sure, it's simply one more game in a season where, ostensibly, every game is the most important, but that's entirely too logical to be fun.

Unless you've been living with a rock for a brain over the past few weeks, you know that this game is absolutely necessary if the Wolverines want to make the tournament this year.  Also - if you've been living with a rock for a brain, how did you find this blog?  And you should probably seek medical attention.

Lose this game (Minnesota, for the aforementioned Rock Brains), and it will take a miracle run in the Big Ten tourney to make it.  Win, and we're most likely in, barring a disaster in the first round in Indy as well as several other improbable bubble-popping scenario's.  There are previews a plenty, but seeing as this game has been crowned as "most anticipated" in a decade, I kinda figured why the hell not?

First and foremost, Michigan has struggled with shot selection and field goal percentage as a whole this season, and playing on the road certainly hasn't helped.  Shot selection is, admittedly, a subjective judgment, but the numbers do bear out the field goal percentage, which is dead last in the Big Ten at .424.  From behind the arc, it gets even more grisly; Michigan only hits 32.7% of their 3-pointers.  Mitigating this slightly is the fact that they've also shot 786 3's on the season, which is 124 more attempts than the 2nd place Big Ten team (Iowa).  Since the "3 pointers attempted" number is ridiculously high, it almost makes our FG percentage numbers irrelevant.  If you take that many shots that are, by definition, more difficult than layups, then you will miss more of those difficult shots.  A better metric would be three points made per game, where Michigan sits first in the Big Ten at 8.6.  But that still doesn't tell the whole story.  Michigan has attempted 1,652 field goals this year, and of those, 786 have been three's.  That means that 47% of Michigan's shots this season have been three point attempts.  Keep this in mind.

At this point, you're undoubtedly saying "yeah, I know" and I promise there is a point.  Minnesota, as Mgo points out in their preview (linked above), is the best shot-blocking team in the country, somehow, and will force Michigan to the perimeter.  Sims and co. aren't going to get a ton of looks from inside the arc, and the 3-ball is going to be vital to the Wolverine's success.  Minnesota actually blocks just over 19% of their opponent's shots, which is, like, wow.  It follows to reason that the 3 ball should be wide open for Michigan all night, what with the focus on interior defense and all.

Now we have two pieces of information.  Michigan loves to shoot three's, and Minnesota will make it tough for them to do otherwise.  This falls into Michigan's power zone, right?  Minnesota will give us the open look from outside, and that's what we want to do 50% of the time anyways.  The last time these two teams met, Michigan was able to run away mostly behind some awesome three point shooting, hitting just under 50% from behind the arc.  Given the above ( that Minnesota will leave the perimeter open) this high percentage shooting is not waaaaaaay far of an outlying performance, but it is still unusual for a team that hits 32% on the season to hit 50% on a given night.

Will it happen again?  It'd better, because Michigan isn't going to get much on the interior.  Their game isn't built around it (remember, half the possessions end in 3's), it's Minnesota's defensive forte (blocked shots), and the last time the two played, Sims (UM's best interior presence) was held to 3 of 11 inside the arc.  To put it bluntly, if Michigan isn't hitting their 3's, they will lose.

There is, however, one contingency plan for "holy crap we're not hitting our outside shots."  Minnesota loves to turn the ball over, doing so just over 14 times per game.  Brian says in his preview:

Michigan doesn't force a ton of turnovers yet—they're still too small for that zone to be really bothersome—but they get their share

I guess I kind of disagree with this; I would say that they're still too inexperienced in that zone to be really bothersome.  When executed properly, the zone, even in its incarnation with Merritt desperately trying to cover the baseline perimeter, is baffling.  When I look at Michigan's most prominent wins against far superior teams, (Duke, UCLA) it was that stifling zone that did the trick, forcing bad passes leading to turnovers.  Statistically, Michigan is not forcing a ton of turnovers.  But at their best, they are capable of forcing a ton of turnovers.  At least, I would say there is just as much chance that Michigan can defy the statistics in turnovers as there is that they can defy them in 3 point FG's. 

Unfortunately, however, this is the wall that I always come to.  To win this game, especially on the road, Michigan is going to have to defy the statistics that they've accumulated through a season of play.  They don't hit 40% of their 3's, which may be enough to put them past Minnesota.  They hit 30% of them.  They don't force 19 turnovers a game (nobody does, I'm making a point - ed), they force 13.  But in some way, shape, or form, they are going to have to be a better team than what their statistics bear out in order to win on Saturday, which I suppose is the exact situation that any team as firmly "on the bubble" as Michigan is should find themselves in.  To make the NCAA Tourney, they must be better than they have been.  They've done it once at home against Minny, with just under 50% shooting from behind the arc.  Can they do it again on the road? 

We'll find out tomorrow at noon EST.  We'll be CiL liveblogging; damn the torpedoes and the weird hexes.