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Overall strong performance keeps Michigan in Big Ten title hunt

Everything was working for the Wolverines against Minnesota.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Minnesota David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

There are no gimmes in Big Ten play, but Thursday’s contest against Minnesota was a game Michigan could not afford to lose. The Wolverines kept pace in the conference race by looking sharp on both ends of the floor, albeit with a few dry spells toward the end of each half. The Gophers may not be the toughest competition, but it was a strong win on the road for the Maize and Blue.

27 games into the season, this team’s identity is fairly defined, but never rule out the progression of a team coached by John Beilein. Case in point, both Colin Castleton and David DeJulius made an appearance against Minnesota. While neither freshman had too large of an impact, it is pretty late in the season for new players to be introduced into the rotation.

The shooter

Much has been documented (in this column, no less) about Michigan’s three-point shooting woes, and as a team there is still strong evidence that long-distance shots are a poor decision. A 46.4 percent effort against the Gophers was a reminder that there is still ability, though, even if it is sporadic.

In reality, Jordan Poole is the player who will determine the Wolverines’ three-point accuracy. The sophomore entered Thursday without much recent success, but his 5-for-10 performance helped remind everyone of who he can be. Poole led Michigan with 22 points, and while this will not be the case every game, he is going to have to find his shooting stroke if the team hopes to compete down the stretch.

Dominant defense

Minnesota ended the game with 0.89 PPP, but for the majority of the contest it felt like points were even harder to come by than that. A 38.1 percent eFG was the Gophers’ third worst mark of the season, and despite taking advantage of Michigan’s recent knack for allowing offensive rebounds and season-long lack of steals, very little seemed to be working.

This is who Michigan is. There will be baskets ceded in the paint to big men, but guards and wings are not going to have their way against Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews. Even though Minnesota scored the bulk of their points at the rim, Jon Teske still recorded five blocks and made life tough underneath. The offense may fluctuate game to game, but the defense will lead the way.

Take the good with the bad

Simpson and Teske — and everyone else — are being told to take open threes when they have them. This has been the case all season long, and it seems reasonable, despite the fact that both shoot just around 30 percent. Against Minnesota Teske rebounded to 3-for-6, though Simpson was 0-for-3.

However, this can be tolerated as each makes significant contributions in other areas of the offense. Perhaps Simpson’s threat to shoot opens up passing lanes. His 12 assists on Thursday night tied his season high, but it was certainly not the first time he has been instrumental in creating for his teammates. Likewise, in addition to his great defense, Teske managed 17 points and was active as always in the paint. Both players are imperfect, but absolutely essential to this team.