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Michigan Basketball vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers Game Preview

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The Wolverines look to secure the first road win in conference play.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan vs Minnesota David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

A Thursday night thriller provided just about every time of emotion a fan can feel. From watching Zavier Simpson score a go-ahead layup to watching Trevion Williams go up as time expired to pull off the road upset, only to be denied by Franz Wagner, it took 50 minutes for this game to be decided. Even when none of the team’s shots were falling, we saw the grit and toughness that coach Juwan Howard has instilled in this group of young men.

Taking double overtime at home to beat a Purdue team who lost their leading scorer to a hip injury in the first half, doesn’t come off as super convincing, but nonetheless is an important win for a team that needed one after last weekend. Despite this not being the most talented Boiler squad, Purdue’s Matt Painter is a proven winner, exemplified by his 330 wins as their head coach. This is the type of momentum that Michigan can hopefully carry over into Sunday.

Now comes a road contest with Minnesota, a game giving the Wolverines the chance to prove they can win away from Crisler within the conference. New to Minnesota’s roster this season are two guard transfers, who after the departure of Amir Coffey to the draft last year, are much needed. Sophomore Marcus Carr sat out last season after playing one year at Pittsburgh and junior Payton Willis comes over after two seasons at Vanderbilt. The pair of transfers have stepped right into the starting lineup for coach Richard Pitino.

To this point in the season, Minnesota and Michigan have had similar stories. However, they aren't the only two teams who have provided evidence of this narrative: Home court is a big deal and regardless of the teams playing, the home team has dominated. Minnesota, who is 2-3 in conference play, is responsible for handing the Buckeyes their first loss of the season. Their other win also came at home at the hands of Northwestern. They’ve struggled mightily on the road though, with their losses coming at Iowa, Purdue, and Michigan State. Let’s see Michigan put a stop to this pattern.

What to Watch:

Interior Defense: The numbers that opposing big men have put up against the Wolverines in conference play is a bit staggering. Luka Garza burned them for 44 points, Kofi Cockburn dropped 19 on them, Xavier Tillman went to work for 20, and then Trevion Williams destroyed them for another 36. These four big men play a physical, inside style of basketball. They like to, for the most part, post up and score with their back to the basket. Howard has elected to not double in the post this season, and once again, stuck by that Thursday night against Purdue, crediting Jon Teske for playing good defense but Williams for making even better shots. Sunday against Minnesota raises another tough task for the Michigan center. Sophomore center Daniel Oturu is the go-to-guy for the Golden Gophers. Already averaging 19.3 points per game and 12.3 rebounds per game, head coach Richard Pitino has challenged him to be even more aggressive and assertive. Similarly to other big men in the conference, Oturu wants to catch the ball on the block and go to work, typically going to a drop step or jump hook.

Rotation Adjustments: Since we saw Isaiah Livers go down with a groin injury, Brandon Johns Jr. has replaced him in the starting lineup and has done pretty well. There’s no denying this team misses Livers, especially on the offensive end. In three starts, we have seen Johns Jr. post three of his five highest scoring games this season. In the second half and overtimes against Purdue though, we saw David DeJulius earn the nod. Howard didn’t sub after the 9:13 mark in the second half, riding the five of Simpson, DeJulius, Brooks, Wagner, and Teske for nearly the length of a whole half when you add the combined ten minutes of overtime in. Whether this was an indicator of what is to come with Livers out is hard to tell. With Purdue big man Matt Haarms leaving the game due to injury, it could very well be that going small made more sense to Howard and thus, DeJulius played down the stretch as opposed to Johns Jr. Regardless of who is starting versus who is finishing, the sophomore pair have and are going to have to continue to carry much more of the load while Livers continues to heal up.

Which Zavier Simpson will we see: The strength of Simpson’s play resides in his ability to facilitate and drive. Simpson has fantastic vision and accounts for the most points of any Wolverine when you factor in all of his assists. His quickness on the perimeter also allows for him to get to the hoop and usually finish, whether it be with a scoop layup or driving hook. However, when opposing teams turn him into a shooter, the Michigan offense becomes stagnant and goes through scoring droughts. We keep hearing Howard refer to Zavier Simpson as his “Tom Brady” based on his ability to lead the offense but also his natural leadership qualities. Simpson will need to be aggressive against Minnesota in order for Michigan to win, especially with the shooting struggles we have witnessed on the road this year.

Prediction:

This game could very well be ugly most of the way. I don’t expect either team to shoot the lights out. I think points in the paint and free throw shooting prove to be the difference in this one. All in all, the Wolverines fall just short. Minnesota 68-66.

Game Info:

Teams: #19 Michigan Wolverines (11-4, 2-2) at Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-7, 2-2)

Date: Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020

Location: Williams Arena, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Time: 1 p.m. EST

Television/Streaming: BTN/BTN+