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Preview: 9-6 Michigan vs. 11-5 Minnesota

The Wolverines return home, where they'll face a capable Minnesota Golden Gophers squad seeking its first conference win.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Who: 11-5 (0-3) Minnesota Golden Gophers

When: Saturday, Jan. 10, 1 ET (ESPN)

Where: Crisler Center -- Ann Arbor, Mich.

The Stage

It's easy to feel good coming off of a road win and an impending date with a squad 0-3 in league play to date; that is, it's easy to do that if you only just started watching college basketball.

While Michigan's performance at Penn State was encouraging -- primarily insofar as it ended in a road win, but also because of the play of its stars, and Rick Doyle and Aubrey Dawkins -- but it was not without blemishes. Michigan turned it over 15 times and allowed Penn State to claw back from a double digit deficit to make it a game late.

Fortunately for John Beilein and Co., Michigan made plays when it counted, and the Wolverines sit at 2-1 in conference play. In light of Michigan's earlier four-game losing streak, things could be much worse.

With that said, in comes a pressing Minnesota squad, eager to notch a Big Ten win after a crushing overtime defeat at The Barn on Tuesday against the Buckeyes. As important as beating teams on the road who happen to be lower on the Big Ten totem pole (e.g. Penn State) may be, winning at home is even more important.

Whether you call it a "must-win" or not, this is another game the Wolverines need to win; this might be a theme, eh?

Them

Richard Pitino's Gophers roll into this one with an 11-5 (0-3) record, kicked off by a 13-point loss against Louisville in Puerto Rico on Nov. 14 (given the conditions in Chicago, Puerto Rico sounds pretty nice right about now).

The No. 89 RPI Gophs scored a 66-62 win against Georgia (RPI No. 28), but beat no other top 100 teams. Their other losses came against St. John's (No. 29), at Maryland (No. 17), Ohio State (No. 44) and at Purdue, the Boilermakers being the "worst" loss of the bunch. Matt Painter's squad edged Minnesota, 72-68, at Mackey, a game in which Minnesota went 50 percent from three but still lost, partially due to a 2-of-10 mark from the field by G Andre Hollins.

Other than that, the maroon and gold have roused themselves to wins against teams they're supposed to beat, and lost against greater foes. Pitino's squads are dangerous, however, and it's only a matter of time before they reel off a few wins; Michigan hopes they aren't that springboard.

Pitino, in his third year in Minneapolis, is 54-32 overall. After going 8-10 in conference play in each of his first two seasons, the Gophers are 0-3 thus far.

Personnel

With fellow Hollins-yet-not-brother Austin Hollins gone, the aforementioned Andre Hollins is the main guy -- rather, he's one of a few in what has been a fairly balanced attack. Hollins averages 12.4 points per game and 2.8 assists per game as a scoring guard, shooting a third-best 42 percent from three on a team-high 85 attempts.

He's struggled of late, however; in addition to his aforementioned Purdue line, he went 3-of-13 against Ohio State, albeit while going the (regulation) distance, playing 40 of the game's 45 minutes. He scored just two points on 1-of-9 shooting against Maryland. He also scored in the single digits against Furman and UNC-Wilmington on Dec. 22 and Dec. 27, albeit in not so close games. Whether the ankle sprain he sustained last January is bothering him or not, something has been off with him, lately.

Luckily for Minnesota, they've got other scoring options. Carlos Morris, a 6-foot-1 guard and Chipola College transfer nicknamed "Squirrel", scores 12.7 ppg. He leads the team in field goal attempts, but shoots a modest 34 percent from beyond the arc. In any case, he's not afraid to shoot; in the loss at Maryland, he scored 18 points, on 7-of-21 shooting (2-of-10 from three).

Senior F (and Canadian) Maurice Walker leads the team in scoring (12.9 ppg), and also leads the team in rebounds (6.1 rpg) and field goal percentage (63 percent). He is, however, not a three-point shooter (zero attempts). Regardless, he is arguably Minnesota's most effective (or important, at least) player in the halfcourt, even more than Hollins.

Also in the backcourt is perhaps one of my favorite players in the Big Ten, the 5-foot-9 creator of chaos DeAndre Mathieu. In addition to 9.9 ppg, he avergaes 5.7 assists per game, 2.6 steals per game and shoots 47 percent from three. In essence, he is the Tasmanian Devil, if the Tasmanian Devil has seriously worked on his jumper since appearing in the 1996 film "Space Jam."

Mathieu is key for Minnesota in the pressure-creating department; Michigan's guards have to be ready for that, especially after coughing it up 15 times at Penn State.

Rounding out the starting five, F Joey King pitches in 9.3 ppg and is also a very good three-point gunner (40 percent). He's 5-of-8 from beyond the arc in Big Ten play.

Off the bench, a 6-foot-1 freshman guard out of Decatur, Ga., Nate Mason, gives the Gophs even more scoring punch (10 ppg). and three-point shooting (45 percent). Like Hollins, he's also had a rough go of it of late, going 1-of-7 and 2-of-7 against Maryland and Ohio State, respectively.

Senior F Charles Buggs also gets some run, but hasn't been a huge factor in league play, where he's shot 1-of-4 in a combined 25 minutes across three games.

The strangest development, to me, is the disappearance of 6-foot-11 C Elliot Eliason. While offensively limited, he has been one of the best defensive players in the conference. This year, the senior is logging just 14 minutes per game despite shooting 70.5 percent from the field. I admittedly haven't watched much of Minnesota outside of Big Ten play and the Louisville game, but this is puzzling to me. Against Maryland and Ohio State, he was a combined 4-of-5 from the field with seven rebounds.

Maybe he just no longer fits into the model of play Pitino is trying to implement; like the fullback in the modern football offense, maybe he's just the odd man out. Whatever the case may be, his absence removes a serious rim protector from the floor, making the path to the rim a little bit less treacherous for players like Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton.

Game Keys

  • Keep the ball. Minnesota entered the Ohio State game second in the nation in steals per game; against the Buckeyes, they stole the ball 11 times. Before thinking about anything else, Michigan must protect the ball against a team like Minnesota, which only feeds on chaos and disarray.
  • Game of Threes. It's no secret that both of these teams love the three, almost as much as Midwesterners love to simultaneously complain about the weather and beat their chest about how it doesn't bother them (guilty!). In the young Big Ten season, Michigan is second in three-point attempts, Minnesota fifth. Minnesota has a quartet of good-to-great three-point shooters -- Hollins, Mathieu, King and Mason -- and Michigan has to be ready to play full extension defense.
  • Pacemakers. So far, Michigan has actually played relatively "fast" during league play, ranking sixth in possessions per game. Meanwhile, Minnesota ranks third. As is always the case, break the press and you're looking at either a good outside look or a chance at the rim a decent percentage of the time. Can Michigan consistently do that? Things don't seem as airtight as they once were in that department (an amusing observation, as Michigan is still fourth in the league in turnover percentage during conference play, at 16 percent), but if they can take care of the ball, they'll get their chances. Of course, chances are just chances.

The Outlook

This is a strange one. Minnesota has often been an erratic squad, capable of burying you under a frigid flurry of threes and forced turnovers, or falling when those things don't work.

Meanwhile, Michigan hasn't exactly been a model of consistency, either. The Gophers can score, while Michigan has struggled to put up points. In addition, there are few teams better than Minnesota at forcing turnovers, and Michigan is coming off of a less than stellar performance in that department.

Playing at home, however, has its perks. This is admittedly a guess, and maybe the cold is going to my head, but I think the Wolverines find a way to get it done. It will feel like a rickety 3-1 conference mark, but 3-1 nonetheless. Michigan 65, Minnesota 62.