While all games are important in the Big Ten, the road games against bad teams may very well be the most important ones to walk away from with a W, because although a road win at Michigan or similar team certainly won't get you into the tournament, lose too many of these and you rack up too many tallies under the "bad loss" column and that can definitely keep you out. Everybody is going to lose their road games, and probably a home game or two, against the top of the conference - that's unavoidable. It is imperative to take care of business against lesser foes so that loss total doesn't rise high enough to raise questions.
That's not to say beating Michigan should be a cakewalk, because they are tough and they have dominated the Gophers recently. They've beaten the Gophers four games in a row including an embarrassing loss in Ann Arbor at the end of last year where Michigan just destroyed them 83-55, a loss which likely knocked Minnesota out of the NCAA Tournament until they played their way back in with a nice run in the B10 tourney.
This year's version of the Wolverines may be a better team, but it's hard to tell. One thing's for certain - they have the capacity to play with anybody. They've played three of the best teams in the land this year in Syracuse, Kansas, and Ohio State and walked away with a 3-point loss, and overtime loss, and a 4-point loss so they're dangerous at any time. They did, however, recently get blown out @ Indiana in a game where they shot just 36% and are in the midst of a four-game losing streak, so they can also lose to anybody at any time.
Which team shows up on Saturday? Well, seeing is how they are at home and likely licking their chops to get at a team they've owned, I'd say the good version, and there's enough talent here to see them to the win.
Their best player by far is sophomore Darius Morris who is leads the team in both scoring (15.7 per game) and assists (7.1, 2nd in the country and 5th in the nation), and he's the best point guard in the entire Big Ten (McCamey -> suck it). Which is why it is going to sound weird when I say not to worry about him. Not because he's not good, it's because he is so good, and incredibly consistent. Essentially no matter what the Gophers do, he's going to score his 15-20 points and dish out 5-9 assists. It's pretty much like clockwork, so instead of worrying about him, worry about his crappy teammates. None of them are particularly good, but a bunch of them can do just enough well that if a couple of them have good games it could push the Wolverines to a win.
Shooting guard Tim Hardaway is the second leading scorer at 11 per game, mainly because he never stops shooting. He's an absolute chucker who is fifth in the conference in 3-point attempts despite having hit just 27% of them this year. But, like all chuckers he can get hot, which he's done a few times this year, scoring 19 points or more in a game three times including vs. Kansas.
Zack Novak is another guy who loves the three, but he's a bit more selective with his shot (36%). He's also a good rebounder for his size (6.5 per game at 6-4) and can score in the lane. Even though he looks like your average dork you'd see at the YMCA hoopin' it up, he's actually pretty athletic, has a good shot, and can control a game at times. He's registered three double-double this year, all against non-cupcakes: Kansas, Harvard, and Oakland.
Power forward Jordan Morgan is a beast at 6-8, 240 lbs. and is one of the best rebounders in the conference on a per-minute basis, averaging 6.1 rebounds per game in just 23 minutes. He's not generally a big fan of scoring, but nonetheless like everybody else on this team he's had his moments, notching 20 points twice.
Stu Douglass is another guard, a junior who has basically been a disappointment in his three years at Michigan. He's not a distributor at all, and isn't much of a scorer, so he mainly just stands around and shoots the occasional three. Of course, he's had his big nights as well, hitting at least three 3-pointers five different times this year, and put up 17 points in their last game against Northwestern.
Evan Smotrycz is basically Jon Beilein's wet dream of a player: white, tall, loves the
Jon Horford is also worth mentioning - yes he's Al's brother - because against the Gophers he'll probably exceed his season average of 8.7 minutes because they'll need his size out there (he's 6-9, 220). He obviously doesn't get much time, but when he's given a chance he produces. In the three games he's been given at least 15 minutes of playing time (never more than 17) he's averaged 6 points and, impressively, 7 rebounds. If I was a Michigan fan I'd kill myself, but before I did that I'd be excited to see him play since he'll probably break that season high 17 minutes. Could be Horford's breakout game. You heard it here first.
So basically just let Morris do what Morris do, but limit all these other dorks. None of them are particularly imposing or terrifying in any way, but if more than 1 of them are on it's going to be a long night. The Gophers shouldn't have any particularly problems with Michigan's defense, but on the other end they're going to have to defend the three-point line like crazy. Michigan doesn't turn the ball over much (24th in the country in TO %) so they're going to get their shots, and they love the three-ball (8th in the country in 3-pt attempts per FG attempt). Morris, Hardaway, Novak, Douglass, Smotrycz, and Matt Vogrich all like the shoot the three. If they're open, they'll make 'em.
The Gophers should win this game on talent, but talent doesn't always win out. On the road against a team who shoots a ton of three-pointers when they can't defend the three and a team that has won 4 in a row against them and completely owned them lately when this could easily be a let-down game for Minnesota and is basically a desperation must win for Michigan? Tell me how that sounds like a Gopher win?
Michigan 74, Minnesota 68.