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Men’s Basketball Game Preview: Minnesota at Michigan

The Wolverines face another stiff test at home.

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NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Maryland Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan improved to 9-0 Sunday, making short work of a surprisingly competent Northwestern team that was projected to finish in the bottom of the Big Ten. The final score of 85-66 wasn’t even all that close, as the Wolverines led by 30 before garbage time really began.

Next up for Michigan is another matchup against a pleasant early-season surprise: 10-2 Minnesota, which has an upset win of Iowa and blowout win of Michigan State to its credit, and is coming off a 17-point win over Ohio State three days ago.

The Golden Gophers, who went 15-16 last year, have had to rebuild after losing big man Daniel Oturu, who’s now in the NBA with the Clippers. The 6-foot-10 Oturu was a beast in his final season of college, averaging 20.1 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game while using up nearly 30 percent of Minnesota’s possessions. Michigan was on the business end of one of Oturu’s best performances last year, as he dropped 30 on 13-of-18 shooting in a 75-67 Gopher win on Jan. 12.

This season, Minnesota’s simply gone from one high-usage superstar to the next. That’s about all Oturu and Marcus Carr have in common, though: Carr is a big-time lead guard rather than a pummeling center, who does everything in piloting the nation’s 20th-ranked offense per KenPom (81.6 points per game).

Averaging 22.1 points, 5.9 assists and 4.1 rebounds on an offensive rating of 119.3, the 6-foot-2 Carr is equally adept at getting to the line (7.7 free-throw attempts per game), hitting from outside (38.4 percent on 6.1 attempts) and distributing to teammates (36.6 assist rate). The former Pittsburgh Panther has taken the requisite step forward after a promising first season at Minnesota, and will be hungry for a rebound performance after his two most recent games, in which he shot just 6-of-25 combined against the Badgers and Buckeyes.

Carr is flanked by junior wings Gabe Kalscheur and Both Gach. Kalscheur is a pure shooting guard and a known commodity in the Big Ten as an ace marksman. This season, though, his range has betrayed him — he’s hit just 15 of his 64 tries from beyond the arc. But he’s gotten to the line much more than he has in the past, allowing him to maintain a double-digit scoring average. Gach, a transfer from Utah, averages 11.0 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, shooting 44 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep. He also functions as Minnesota’s secondary playmaker, with 3.1 assists per game. At 6-foot-6, he brings athleticism along with a versatile skill set at the ‘3’.

The Gophers’ two transfer big men have fit in as well as they could have hoped for. 7-footer Liam Robbins, coming off a 27-point, 14-rebound, 5-block obliteration of Ohio State, averages 14.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game, and can step out and hit outside shots (32.0 percent on 2.1 tries per game) as well as be an anchor inside. He’s putting up almost identical numbers to what he did last season at Drake, despite the huge jump in competition. Brandon Johnson, a transfer from Western Michigan, starts at the ‘4’, where he’s averaging 8.3 points and 5.8 rebounds while hitting 42.3 percent from deep. He adds another stretch element to Minnesota’s offense.

The Golden Gophers go nine-deep, though none of their four bench players get a ton of playing time. 6-foot-2 freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr. (5.0 ppg), the son of the 12-year NBA vet, averages 5.0 points. Eric Curry (4.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg) is a 6-foot-9 post who’s healthy after missing the entirety of the 2017-18 and 2019-20 seasons. Isaiah Ihnen, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, is shooting just 27 percent from the floor but grabs 4.1 rebounds on average. 6-foot-5 guard Tre Williams averages 3.0 points per game.

Vital stats

Minnesota likes to push the ball, ranking 44th in tempo. Having a leader as experienced and talented as Carr allows them to do so successfully, and Michigan will need to be prepared for a track meet.

Due to Carr’s influence, the Gophers don’t turn the ball over much either — they’re 18th in the nation at limiting turnovers. Carr’s also a big reason why they’re 22nd in percentage of baskets which were assisted (62 percent).

Carr, Robbins, Kalscheur and Gach all get to the line at least three times per game. Minnesota’s free-throw-to-field-goal rate of 46.5 ranks seventh in the nation.

While the Gophers love the three-ball (nearly 30 attempts per game in Big Ten play) and all five starters can knock them down, they’re not great at it as a team. They shoot just 30.9 percent from outside, and are shooting just 38.7 percent overall in conference play. (But their defense, which ranks 36th in efficiency, has also allowed conference opponents to hit under 40 percent.)

What to watch for

Hunter Dickinson finally has some competition his size. Robbins is the best big the Wolverines’ freshman will have seen, combining a traditional big’s height with the floor-stretching ability of a smaller post like Maryland’s Donta Scott, who hurt his bigger counterpart with five 3-pointers last week. Robbins can take over a matchup on both ends of the court, and for once, Michigan won’t be able to count on being able to dump the ball inside and get results. There’s no discounting what Dickinson has done through the first nine games, but he hasn’t been tested yet like he will be Wednesday.

One of the most notable things about Sunday’s game was how thoroughly Michigan stymied Northwestern’s backcourt duo. Boo Buie was held scoreless after coming in averaging nearly 13 a game, while Chase Audige shot just 1-of-6 from the field. Carr, though, is an entirely different animal, and represents the biggest challenge Mike Smith and Eli Brooks will have seen thus far.