Who: Minnsota Golden Gophers (6-12, 0-6 B1G)
When: Wednesday, January 20th, at 8:30 p.m. ET (BTN)
Where: Crisler Center -- Ann Arbor, Mich.
Michigan's three-game gauntlet has ended, and now the cupcake carnival begins. After three straight games against ranked teams, two of which are in the top 10 in the human polls, Michigan has four straight games against teams that are a combined 5-19 in the Big Ten. This will be the easiest stretch of Michigan's Big Ten season, so the Wolverines must capitalize on this opportunity to pad their win total as they pursue an NCAA Tournament bid. If they win all four, they will be 17-5 (7-2 B1G) heading into February.
The question that continues to linger is when Caris LeVert will return. He's been hampered with a "lower left leg" injury that has forced him to miss the past four games. John Beilein said on Sunday that LeVert is "walking around pain-free" and will undergo medical tests this week. Beilein also has stated that he wants LeVert to practice two or three days before he puts him in a game. Given that Michigan practiced only on Tuesday in preparation for tonight's game, LeVert should be ruled out for this one. However, it would be in Michigan's best interest if he was able to start practicing this week. This Saturday's road contest at Nebraska could be tricky and one in which Michigan might need LeVert to pull out the win. Plus, Michigan would like LeVert to play in a few a games in order for him to get back into a rhythm before the Wolverines host Indiana and Michigan State in back-to-back games the first week of February.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Minnesota, but I don't think Gophers fans realized just how much construction there would be. Overall, Minnesota is 6-12 and has won only one game since the end of November (#337 Chicago State). In the Big Ten, not only is Minnesota winless, joining Rutgers at the bottom of the conference standings, the Gophers' efficiency margin is minus-22.7 points per 100 possessions, which is the third-worst in the KenPom era (since 2001-02). And it's not as if Minnesota has been beaten down by the Big Ten's elite. The Gophers lost to Ohio State by 15 points, Northwestern by 25 points, and Nebraska by 25 points. They did give Michigan State and Indiana games, losing to both by only single digits, but those were at The Barn. Tonight's game won't be.
Offensively, Minnesota is average nationally (175th in adjusted efficiency) but one of the worst in the Big Ten (13th). The Gophers' problems start with their shooting. They're 265th in eFG%, making only 45.1 percent of their twos (287th) and 34.2 percent of their threes (176th). Their two-point shooting is poor because they don't get many layups or dunks (345th in pct. of shots taken at the rim). Instead, most of their two-point tries are jumpers, of which they drain only 28.9 percent (341st). It doesn't help either that Minnesota doesn't corral many of these misses, ranking 274th in offensive rebounding rate (26.6 pct.). In the non-conference portion of the season, at least the Gophers took care of the ball (57th in TO%). That hasn't been the case against conference foes, though, as they are 11th in turnover rate in Big Ten play. However, what has translated to the Big Ten is Minnesota's knack for getting to the free-throw line (3rd in FTR in Big Ten play).
Minnesota's defense is worse than its offense. The Gophers are 241st in adjusted defensive efficiency (106.1), which is last in the Big Ten. Opponents have carved up Minnesota's defense inside and out. Not only are opponents converting 48.6 percent of their twos (173rd) and 36.8 percent of their threes (280th) against Minnesota, they have tallied assists on 61.1 percent of their field goals (329th). Further, Big Ten opponents have had even more success down low against the Gophers, draining 58.1 percent of their twos. That's the worst two-point defense in Big Ten play. In the occasional instances when opponents do miss, they have lots of second-chance opportunities as Minnesota is 271st in defensive rebounding rate (67.6 pct.). Usually, opponents are able to get their shots up, too, because the Gophers are just so-so at forcing turnovers (185th in TO%). The only area where Minnesota is ranked in the top 100 is in defensive free-throw rate (91st), but even that hasn't gone well vs. conference foes (11th in FTR in Big Ten play).
Minnesota's starting point guard is 6-foot-2 sophomore Nate Mason, who records 12.3 PPG, 3.9 APG, and 2.4 RPG. Mason is the team's best distributor (28.4 ast%) and handles the ball well (2.3 A:TO ratio). Plus, he knocks down his freebies (82.0 FT%) when he gets to the line (31.4 FTR). However, what holds Mason back is his shooting. He doesn't dribble to the rim often, where he doesn't finish well anyway, and he's not the best jump-shooter (31.6 3P%). Further, defensively, he's not as much of an annoyance as he used to be. As a freshman, Mason had a 4.0 steal rate. This season? His steal rate is 1.6 percent.
For most of the season, the starting shooting guard has been 6-foot-5 senior Carlos Morris, who averages 10.8 PPG and 3.7 RPG. Morris has regressed offensively as his offensive rating has fallen from 99.2 last season to 90.9 this season. His three-point shooting still is top-notch, sinking 40 percent of his treys. However, most of his shots have been two-point jumpers, of which he's converted only 27.2 percent. And, defensively, his steal rate has been halved (3.9 pct. to 1.9 pct.) much like Mason's has been. Therefore, coach Richard Pitino has opted to start 6-foot-4 freshman Dupree McBrayer the past two games, but McBrayer has been worse than Morris this season. His offensive rating (82.3) is 89th out of the 90 eligible Big Ten players because he's made only 31.8 percent of his twos and 14.3 percent of his threes. The only thing that McBrayer does particularly well on offense is get to the line (80.6 FTR), but he connects on just 65.5 percent of his freebies. It's safe to say shooting guard has been a problem for Minnesota.
At small forward, Minnesota goes with 6-foot-6 freshman Jordan Murphy, though he plays much more like a power forward. Murphy scores 10.5 PPG in only 24.1 MPG, and he's very effective around the rim, where he makes 84.5 percent of his shots. He's so effective there because he's third in the Big Ten in RPG (8.0) and total rebounding rate (18.7 pct.). His prowess on the glass leads to points because almost one-third of his made field goals at the rim are put-backs. However, if defenses can keep him off the glass and force him to shoot jumpers (21.1 2P% on jumpers), Murphy inflicts little damage. Big Ten teams have figured this out as his stats have fallen off during the conference season.
The other forward is 6-foot-9 senior Joey King, who leads Minnesota with 12.9 PPG. King has been Minnesota's most efficient offensive player -- by far. His 127.2 rating is seventh in the Big Ten, and the next eligible Gopher is 41st. King is dangerous because he is a superb catch-and-shoot sniper (47.1 3P%) and can make his way to the free-throw line (42.3 FTR), where he doesn't miss often (88.9 pct.). However, he struggles to score when he's asked to put the ball on the floor and pull up for mid-range jumpers, and it's been apparent against Big Ten opponents, against whom he's hit only 4-of-19 twos (21.1 pct.). I don't know if it's because of this or Pitino wanted to shake things up, but, two games ago, King was replaced in the starting lineup by 6-foot-6 wing Ahmad Gilbert, who fires lots of threes (63.6 3PA%) but misses most (23.8 3P%). I don't get the move.
At center, Minnesota will start 6-foot-11 sophomore Bakary Konate, who registers 4.9 PPG, 4.1 RPG, and 1.4 BPG in just 20.2 MPG. Konate doesn't get the ball much on offense (14.4 usg%), but, when he does around the basket, he can finish well (56.5 2P%). Plus, Konate excels on the offensive backboards (8.3 OR%) and as a shot-blocker (7.2 blk%).
The two reserves that should see some time other than the ones mentioned above are six-foot freshman point guard Kevin Dorsey and 6-foot-9 junior forward Charles Buggs. Dorsey has really struggled in his first season of college basketball. He averages 6.4 PPG in just 17.4 MPG, but that's only because he doesn't hesitate to shoot when he's in. The problem, though, is that he drills only 37.7 percent of his twos and 19.4 percent of his threes. He's very much like fellow frosh McBrayer in that he needs to get to the charity stripe to score (62.0 FTR). On the other hand, Buggs is much better from the field. He can score around the hoop (80.0 2P% at the rim) and from beyond the arc (38.5 3P%). But, despite his size, Buggs isn't much of a rebounder -- he's OK on the defensive end -- or a rim protector. He's simply there to space the floor and put points on the scoreboard.
Don't Settle for Threes: Michigan has been one of the nation's best three-point shooting teams (8th in 3P% and 12th in 3PA%), but it is about to face the Big Ten's worst defense and one that has allowed Big Ten offenses to make a ridiculous 58.1 percent of their twos. Of course, the Wolverines could bury Minnesota from deep, but that always leaves open the chance that they could be susceptible to an upset if they have an off night. The best way to mitigate that is to attack the bucket with dribble penetration and by slashing to the rim. Michigan should have open looks all game and little problem finishing them.
No Touching: Minnesota sputters on offense in many ways, but it can get to the free-throw line. The bad news for the Gophers is that Michigan is 26th in the country in defensive free-throw rate and first in Big Ten play. If Michigan maintains this, it will force Minnesota to score from the field. There are some Gophers that can do this like Joey King -- Michigan needs to face-guard him -- but most can't (264th in eFG%). Thus, Michigan will be in good shape if it follows the guards' policy in Arrested Development:
Keep Jordan Murphy Out of the Paint: Michigan has had trouble with players that can score in the paint and crash the glass, and Minnesota has one of those players in Jordan Murphy. Murphy is only 6-foot-6, so he won't be someone that towers over the Michigan frontcourt. However, because he is a forward, Zak Irvin most likely will be the one defending him. Thus, Irvin needs to be aware of where Murphy is on the court when Minnesota has the ball at all times and be prepared to force him to shoot jumpers and box him out. If Irvin does this, Michigan shouldn't get pushed around in the paint.
Even without Caris LeVert, Michigan should shred Minnesota's defense, scoring at will inside and outside the three-point line, and one of the Wolverines' few defensive strengths matches up with one of the Gophers' few offensive strengths. Add in that Michigan has the benefit of playing in front of its home crowd, and this should be a rout.
Michigan 87, Minnesota 63