Who: Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-17, 0-11 Big Ten)
When: Wednesday, February 10th, at 9:00 p.m. ET (BTN)
Where: Williams Arena -- Minneapolis, Minn.
In the 2010 film Unstoppable, starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, the characters played by Washington and Pine are attempting to stop a runaway train carrying dangerous chemicals. However, at one point, the train is headed for the Stanton Curve, an elevated turn that runs through an area where giant tanks of fuel are stored -- what a brilliant idea! Due to this, trains are required to go no faster than 15 MPH through the curve for fear of derailment and a potential catastrophe. However, the runaway train enters the turn too fast and is on the verge of tipping over into the giant tanks of fuel:
Michigan is that runaway train right now, on the verge of tipping over. Michigan flunked last week, getting smacked around by Indiana and Michigan State at home, but this didn't kill Michigan's NCAA Tournament chances. The Wolverines still are on the bubble, can get the wheels back on track, and earn an at-large bid. However, if they lose to Minnesota, a team that is 0-11 in the Big Ten and 245th in RPI, summon as many emergency service vehicles as you can because they will fully have derailed. Michigan would be on the wrong side of the bubble, have lost its third straight game, and be staring at a three-game stretch vs. Purdue, at Ohio State, and at Maryland. This is a must-win.
What would help Michigan not tip over is the return of Caris LeVert, who has missed the last 10 games with a "lower left leg" injury. On Tuesday, John Beilein told the media that LeVert is no longer in pain and working to get back in game shape. Beilein added that LeVert practiced for one hour on Monday and he is a "possible game-time decision," saying that it will be LeVert's call. We'll see how he is feeling tonight, I guess.
If it wasn't for Rutgers, Minnesota would be the laughingstock of the Big Ten. The Gophers still haven't won a conference game and own only one win since the start of December -- over #344 Chicago State no less. At least they didn't recently extend the contract of the head coach overseeing this downturn. Oh, wait, they did ... to 2020-21.
However, Minnesota has put up some fight in recent weeks, particularly at home. In Minneapolis, Michigan State, Indiana, and Purdue needed all 40 minutes to put away the Gophers -- none won by more than eight points -- and Minnesota fell apart in the final minute of regulation before Illinois stole one away in overtime. Plus, it's not as if the Wolverines took care of business swiftly against Minnesota in Ann Arbor. The Gophers whittled a 15-point deficit down to three before the Wolverines were able to hold on at the end for a 74-69 win. And you know Minnesota is hungry for that first Big Ten win.
Offensively, Minnesota is 216th overall and 13th in the Big Ten in adjusted efficiency (101.1). This mostly stems from the fact that the Gophers are 287th in eFG% (46.8 pct.), making just 46.4 percent of their twos (252nd) and 31.7 percent of their threes (287th). They're not a team that attacks the basket often (338th in pct. of shots at the rim), and, clearly, outside shooting is not their forte either. If anything their three-point shooting has worsened as they drilled only 7-of-48 triples (14.6 pct.) in their last three games. Plus, not only do they miss their first shot of each possession often, they don't get many second looks, ranking 301st in offensive rebounding rate (25.1 pct.). What Minnesota's offense relies on is taking care of the ball (32nd in TO%) and getting to the line (97th in FTR).
Defensively, Minnesota is in a similar predicament. The Gophers are 189th overall and 13th in the Big Ten in adjusted efficiency (103.9). The only area in which they do a semi-decent job is not fouling and sending teams to the charity stripe (103rd in FTR). Everything else is a mess. Opponents have had an easy time dicing Minnesota's defense (313th in ast%) for buckets (206th in eFG%). Though opponents have been better from three (220th) than two (189th) overall, Big Ten opponents have had parades to the rim against Minnesota (55.3 2P%). Even when offenses aren't scoring twos at will, Minnesota struggles to get defensive rebounds (230th in DR%) and force turnovers (223rd in TO%).
Minnesota is led by 6-foot-2 sophomore point guard Nate Mason, who averages a team-best 13.4 PPG and 4.4 APG. He's not the most efficient player, but he's made more of an effort to get on the scoreboard in recent games. He just had a four-game stretch during which he recorded 20.0 PPG, but that ended with eight points on 3-of-12 shooting in his last game against Northwestern. Mason is better when he's able to attack the rim (43.7 2P%) than when he's forced to settle for jumpers (30.3 3P%). However, he's at his best when he's orchestrating the offense and getting his teammates involved. In Big Ten play, he has a 34.1-percent assist rate -- third-best -- to an 11.9-percent turnover rate. Not bad.
Mason's starting sidekick in the backcourt is 6-foot-4 freshman guard Dupree McBrayer, but he's not nearly as effective as Mason. McBrayer averages only 4.9 PPG and is 93rd in offensive efficiency (82.9) among the 94 qualified Big Ten players. McBrayer's problem simply is that he can't shoot the ball. He's made only 35.3 percent of his twos and 6-of-38 threes (15.8 pct.). Other than a wide-open layup, any shot McBrayer takes from the field is a win for the defense. If he scores points, it's usually at the line. He has the team's best free-throw rate (71.7 pct.) but makes only 61.8 percent of his freebies.
The starting forwards are 6-foot-6 freshman Jordan Murphy and 6-foot-9 junior Charles Buggs. Their heights suggest that Murphy is the small forward and Buggs is the power forward, but they play like the opposite. Murphy, who averages 10.7 PPG and 7.7 RPG in 24.1 MPG, is one of the Big Ten's best rebounders. He makes his impact on the offensive (11.9 OR%) and defensive (24.1 DR%) boards. He also is an excellent finisher, converting 87 percent of his layups and dunks -- which equal half of his field-goal tries. But Murphy loses his touch the further he is from the basket. On the other hand, Buggs doesn't have a presence on the glass, and, though he scores well around the rim, he prefers to launch jump shots (54.7 3PA%). He's hit 34.6 percent of his three-pointers.
Minnesota is anchored by 6-foot-11 sophomore center Bakary Konate. He isn't much of a scorer (5.0 PPG) because he doesn't get many touches down low (14.0 usg%). However, he's a solid finisher when he gets the opportunity (55.0 2P%), though he has a bad habit of losing the ball (21.0 TO%). But where Konate is most noticeable is on defense. He's a very good rim protector (6.2 blk%) and above-average defensive rebounder (16.0 DR%).
Unlike most teams, the Gophers bring some firepower off the bench. One of those players is 6-foot-9 senior forward Joey King, who has tallied 11.4 PPG. King can score around the rim, but he functions as a catch-and-shoot three-point specialist (43.1 3P%). He has become very hit or miss, though, after scoring double digits in eight games to open the season. Another one of those players is 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Carlos Morris, who has been a reserve in his past six contests after starting the first 16. Morris has posted 10.3 PPG, but he needs to put up a lot of shots to get there (88.2 ORtg, 23.8 usg%). Morris is a solid three-point shooter (36.2 3P%) -- though he's drained just 3-of-16 treys in his six games off the bench -- but he has some trouble inside the arc (40.1 2P%). And the last one is six-foot freshman guard Kevin Dorsey, who hasn't scored much during the season but has totaled 32 points on 33 shots in the past two games. He's a terrible perimeter shooter (6-of-38 3P), but he knows how to penetrate into the lane and draw fouls (50.4 FTR).
Re-energize the Offense: Michigan has been flat on offense in recent weeks. It's easy to point to the not-so-small dip in its three-point shooting, but there's more to it than that. The Wolverines have become stagnant due to their inability to drive the lane and finish in traffic. They haven't been able to beat defenders one on one, which means they can't suck in the defense and give shooters open looks on the arc. The good news is that Minnesota's defense should help cure that. The Gophers don't have the length, athleticism, or discipline that Indiana and Michigan State has, and offenses have been able to carve them up with lots of assisted two-pointers. This should be a game in which Michigan rediscovers its offensive flow by attacking and opening space for shooters.
Prevent Nate Mason's Penetration: The last time Michigan and Minnesota met, Mason went off for a career-high 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting and five assists. He was the key reason that the Gophers were able to hang in which the Wolverines until the end. Much of Mason's success came from his ability to drive into the lane for buckets or easy assists. Given that Mason is a below-average outside shooter, it's in Michigan's best interest to force him to beat them with jumpers. However, this may not be an easy task for the Wolverines as they struggled mightily in this endeavor vs. Indiana and Michigan State.
Keep Jordan Murphy Out of the Paint: Allowing dribble penetration has been the bigger issue lately, but men that can be bullies in the paint can cause problems for Michigan. Murphy may not have imposing size, but he's proven himself to be an excellent scorer and rebounder around the rim. In the last meeting against Michigan, Murphy didn't terrorize the Wolverines, but he still had a very productive 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting and eight rebounds. Zak Irvin likely will be tasked with guarding Murphy, and it is imperative that Irvin uses his strength and positioning to push him away from the rim. If Irvin is able to do that, Minnesota should not have an interior presence on offense.
Despite that Michigan resembled Rutgers in its past two games, it doesn't derail.
Michigan 79, Minnesota 69