The Michigan Wolverines are hurting. Back-to-back losses to Virginia and Kentucky are not resume killers, but the missed opportunities for a signature win really sting. However, after losing Jaelin Llewellyn for the season in Sunday’s loss, perhaps even thinking that far ahead is a little ambitious.
This is a tough time for the Wolverines to jump into conference play, but there are a few positives. First, there is only one Big Ten game on the docket this month thanks to the trip to London. Second, that game comes against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who are likely the worst team in the league right now, sitting 147th overall per Kenpom (Nebraska is the next lowest at 82nd).
Still, very few Michigan fans are feeling cheerful heading into Minneapolis. Llewellyn’s injury aside, this team has not been sharp, and last year’s squad — who is looking much better than this one — lost to these Gophers at home 12 months ago. While that team was a little better too, the arrows are not trending favorably for the Wolverines.
Michigan Wolverines (5-3, 0-0) vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-4, 0-1)
Date & Time: Wednesday, Dec. 8, 9:00 p.m.
Location: Williams Arena, Minneapolis, MN
At 7.0 PPG and 2.8 APG on 30.9 percent shooting, Llewellyn was far from elite during his first month at Michigan, but losing him is going to be a big blow. The departure of Frankie Collins made the depth at the point guard position very sparse, and having a veteran like Llewellyn transfer in was one of the biggest parts of the offseason.
The reins are now handed to four-star Dug McDaniel, who has looked...a bit wild in his limited minutes this season. The diminutive freshman has a ton of energy and certainly can facilitate an offense, but calling him raw is an understatement. All of a sudden, he is going to take the biggest share of the point guard minutes much sooner than anyone had planned.
In today’s world of positionless basketball, expect Juwan Howard to utilize some unique lineups to get his best players on the floor more often. This means both Kobe Bufkin and Jett Howard could see some time as the nominal point guard, as both players have the ability to inject some much-needed life into the offense. It might look a little wonky for the first few games, but the hope is that good players will find a way to make it work.
Minnesota is coming off three-straight defeats where all three opponents posted at least 1.00 PPP. The Wolverines are not quite at the level of Purdue, but the Boilermakers got all of the looks they wanted, while also snagging 12 offensive rebounds. Michigan needs Hunter Dickinson to step up now more than ever, and they key might be facilitating from the inside out, as he will either suck in multiple defender are have the opportunity to feast in the paint.
Michigan played well enough to beat Virginia and Kentucky, but some ill-timed cold stretches in the second halves saw leads slip away. The more frustrating aspect, though, was the defense’s inability to get stops when needed, and too many open looks from three let both opposing offenses find free points unnecessarily.
These issues should be less vulnerable on Thursday, as the Gophers are not exactly thriving on offense. Sitting 180th per Kenpom, this unit sits somewhere between Ohio and Eastern Michigan. Not only should the Wolverines be able to rely on their defense in this one, but hopefully a strong effort will help get the squad back on track going forward.
Ta’Lon Cooper and Jamison Battle are the two players to keep on eye on. Cooper is shooting 56.5 percent from deep on three attempts per game and leads the team with over seven assists per night. Meanwhile, Battle was the team’s leading scorer a year ago and is coming back from a minor injury this fall. Neither player should scare the Michigan defense, but a passive approach will surely get cut up once again.