Every team’s entitled to an off-game now and then. As long as they don’t let them pile up.
The Michigan men’s basketball team had an off-game Saturday at Minnesota, falling to the Golden Gophers 75-57 to fall unceremoniously from the ranks of the unbeaten. If the Wolverines turn around and beat Maryland at home, as they’re expected to, the loss itself probably won’t be that big a deal anymore. Memories are pretty short in sports. But that doesn’t mean Minnesota didn’t shed light on some potential questions Michigan might face going forward.
The Terrapins enter Tuesday night’s contest 8-6 and ranked No. 45 in KenPom, but just 2-5 in Big Ten play. Their two wins, however, are road wins at Wisconsin and Illinois. It’d be easy to label them simply a Chaos Team, but it’s probably fairer to say that the Big Ten is just stacked. There’s only one legitimately bad team in the league, and it isn’t Maryland.
Most of what I wrote back in December before these two teams last played — an 84-73 Michigan victory — should still be applicable. Taking the whole season into account, the Terrapins are still an undersized, but versatile and efficient, offensive team that struggles somewhat on the defensive end. (In Big Ten play, Maryland is just 12th in offensive efficiency and 11th in defensive efficiency, but it is 4th in 3-point shooting.)
One key will be the status of Eric Ayala, their nominal point guard and leading scorer, who has missed the last two games with an injury but is expected to suit up Tuesday. (One of the games Ayala missed, though, was the win at Illinois, a game in which the Terrapins shot 40 percent from the 3-point range.)
On the heels of an afternoon in which Michigan turned it over 20 times, it will face a Terrapin team that has a turnover rate of 16.2, good for 38th in the nation. In Big Ten play alone, the Wolverines are dead last in turnover rate, coughing it up on nearly one-fifth of their possessions.
It’s probably fair to assign some of the Wolverines’ struggles Saturday to the absence of Eli Brooks and his steady hand in the backcourt. But Mike Smith had 10 assists running the show as the primary ball-handler, so it’s not like Michigan’s offense has nowhere to turn or can use Brooks’ absence as an excuse.
Instead, Hunter Dickinson had five of those 20 turnovers, including three in the first five minutes, as Minnesota focused its defensive attention on double-teaming him when he got the ball in the post. If Maryland repeats that strategy — and considering their two starting “big men” are 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9, it seems like a wise one — Dickinson will need to do a much better job passing the ball out of trouble. Michigan will also need to shoot better than 6-for-22 from 3-point range in that situation, too.
Potentially having Brooks — who’s a game-time decision — back would no doubt help in those aforementioned categories and also on defense. That’s especially true if Ayala plays, as the junior has an offensive rating of 120.2.
Something else to watch out for: the Terrapins’ 3-point shooting. It was a 59.1 percent performance from beyond the arc the last time these two teams met that allowed Maryland to keep the game close well into the second half. And it was Maryland’s bigs — Donta Scott and Jairus Hamilton, who knocked down eight combined treys — who made up the bulk of that performance.
The matchup between two bigs of contrasting sizes and styles played out to everyone’s strengths back in December. The more mobile Scott and Hamilton stretched the floor and bombed outside shots, while the 7-foot-1 Dickinson had his way inside, scoring 26 points on 10-of-11 shooting. What adjustments, if any, the Wolverines or Terrapins make in guarding the other team’s big men will no doubt be interesting to watch.
Vegas has Michigan favored in this one by double digits. If the Wolverines are to make good on that, they’ll have to hold onto the ball and defend the 3-ball, among other things. If they don’t, another wake-up call might be in the cards.