Michigan men’s basketball beat Minnesota, 82-57, on Jan. 6 in Ann Arbor. The 25-point blowout was a surprise of sorts, seeing as the Golden Gophers are by no means a terrible team. Still, it was within the realm of possibility.
The same could not be said for what happened Tuesday, when the Wolverines demolished No. 9 Wisconsin, 77-54. The game wasn’t even that close. Michigan went on a 41-6 run between the first and second halves and led by as much as 40 before garbage time ensued. Tuesday night said that this season’s Wolverines were officially For Real in a way no game had previously.
Michigan’s new existence as a bona fide contender begins Saturday, when the Wolverines will travel to Minneapolis to take on the Gophers for the second time in 10 days. This one fits the classic characteristics of a trap game — and would fit them even more so if the notoriously boisterous Williams Arena were packed with fans.
But there’s a global pandemic still raging, and Minnesota has lost two straight. Since its big win over Ohio State on Jan. 3, the Gophers fell to Michigan and then to Iowa, 86-71, a game in which they allowed the Hawkeyes to shoot 55 percent from the floor.
Don’t write off Minnesota just because of two top-10 losses: it’s still got one of the best point guards in the entire country in Marcus Carr, and there are a few areas where the Gophers could, theoretically, give the Wolverines some major trouble. But their best chance at knocking Michigan from the ranks of the unbeaten might be the “trap game” aspect. Minnesota’s good enough to take advantage of a Michigan letdown after Tuesday’s win.
There’s not much new to add from my Jan. 6 game preview, so I’ve linked that here. If you want a fuller, in-depth breakdown of Minnesota from a roster, team construction, and playing style standpoint, that’s still the place to go. But there are a few trends that I emphasized less back then, that might be important watching for Saturday.
Through seven conference games, the Gophers have been the worst shooting team in the Big Ten. They’re hitting just 43 percent of their 2-pointers and 29 percent of their 3-pointers. The latter is despite the highest 3-point rate in the conference: 46 percent of their attempts have come from there.
Minnesota still plays fast, and it still isn’t turning the ball over much. Its defense has been okay during Big Ten play, allowing an effective field-goal percentage of just 49 percent. But if the Gophers want any hope at pulling off the upset, they’re going to need to do something they haven’t proven they can do: hit some shots.
They’re also going to need Carr to get back to his early-season form. Carr’s been in a major slump as of late, having shot 31 percent from the field or less in each of his last four games. It simply hasn’t been pretty. It wouldn’t be wise for the Wolverines to count on that version of Carr showing up Saturday, however.
What’s changed for Michigan? A few things. For one: Hunter Dickinson proved himself against Minnesota’s 7-footer Liam Robbins two weeks ago, and the Wolverines later proved they could win and win dominantly without needing a big game from him.
Dickinson didn’t score until late in the first half against the Badgers, and a final stat line of 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting and six rebounds in 24 minutes was pedestrian for his standards. But the Wolverines still hummed: Franz Wagner was everywhere, Mike Smith ran the show, Isaiah Livers stayed consistent and Austin Davis returned to spell Dickinson nicely as a big, back-to-the-basket center.
Wagner is oozing poise and confidence in playing possibly the best basketball of his career. Wisconsin simply didn’t have the length and athleticism on the perimeter to deal with him, and it resulted in 15 points, 10 rebounds, and four steals. The likely matchup with the Gophers’ Both Gach, a 6-foot-6 wing who's best attribute might be his versatility, will be one to watch, but it’s hard to see who can stop Wagner when he plays like he did Tuesday.
It seems unlikely Michigan will play like it did Tuesday (read: perfect) on many more occasions this season, but right now, it’s playing way too well (and Minnesota’s not playing well enough, either) to predict anything other than a comfortable win for the Wolverines Saturday.
However, it’s probably not outside the realm of possibility that Michigan, still riding the high of the win over the Badgers, comes out complacent and overly expectant of the aforementioned comfortable win — which could give the Gophers just the chance they need.