So we move on from the disappointments of the Illinois game and up next is another road game against a slightly worse opponent in the Michigan Wolverines. Yes, slightly worse. Because although Michigan is ranked higher than Illinois in the polls (16 vs. 27), kenpom has Illinois a little bit better (46 vs. 52) and Illinois is significantly better in the RPI (20 vs. 59). If you're like me and wondering why you haven't heard anything about Michigan even though they were supposed to be like so awesome its the same reason their RPI is so crappy - they haven't played anyone since December 3rd (wins over Oakland, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Alabama A&M, and Bradley since then - all terrible teams). So, again, this makes them kind of hard to evaluate.
By now you know the basic drill with a John Beilein team - shoot a ton of threes coming from every single player/position on the court, a lot of ball movement, and mediocre man-to-man defense. This is year is no exception with one major wrinkle - the Wolverines, although still one of highest volume shooting three-point teams, have become extremely efficient on TWO pointers. This year they are hitting at 59.2% from two, tops in the nation. Notable in this is that all eight players who matter on this team hit at least 51% from two. So they got that going for them.
Despite their efficiency inside the arc, Michigan still lives and dies outside of it and as such their guards are the key and they have two really, really good (but not quite great) ones in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway.
Burke, although just a freshman, is probably the best player on the team. He's their second leading scorer at 13 per game, leading assist guy with 5 per (ranks 3rd in b10), and chips in 3 boards and a steal per game. His turnovers are a little high at nearly 3 per game, but that's not out of line for a freshman point guard and his nearly 2-to-1 assist ratio is a nice number. He's an excellent penetrator (just like me, ask your mom), and can finish at the rim or kick-out to a teammate and is a solid shooter anywhere on the floor. I wouldn't have thought it possible but he's stepped in for the departed Darius Morris and Michigan hasn't missed a beat.
Although Burke might be their best player, Hardaway is almost certainly their most important simply because he dominates the ball as much as he does. So far this year he's done well, ranking in the top 500 in basically every advanced offensive metric other than the rebounding ones and he's mainly upped his effectiveness by shooting better from two (58% this year compared to 48% last year) and contributing more assists (2.9 vs. 1.7). He's still a terrible chucker overall (33% from three this year, 37% last year, and leads the team in three-point attempts) but he's masked that with his ability to get to the rim and the line this year. The Gophers would be wise to coax him into jacking up a ton of threes rather than having him gain confidence getting to the rim. You're taking a chance that he'll put up something like the 5-9 from 3 performance he put up against Oakland, but you're also better off betting that won't happen and keeping him away from the paint. He's a chucker, let him chuck and hope the percentages play themselves out the way they should.
Michigan has three other guys who can hurt you - Evan Smotrycz, Jordan Morgan, and Zack "8th year" Novak. Smotrycz is a 6-9 "power" forward who is third on the team in scoring (11.7) and leads in rebounds (6.7) despite being a perimeter playing nancy boy forward who spends more time outside the 3-point line than Ralph Sampson. He's been on fire lately, averaging over 18 a game over his last four, but he's done it by being unconscious from deep (15-19 in those four games, not a misprint). Obviously there's no way he can keep that up, but considering he gets most of his points from three the Gophers would do well to be sure his crazy shooting streak stops.
The other two, Morgan and Novak, are both technically forwards but couldn't be more different. Morgan is the model of efficiency, hitting 71% of his shots by never shooting anything other than a dunk or lay-up, and is big (6-8) and strong (240 lbs.). He also has a tendency to disappear in games and losing playing time in some games due to lack of effort. That's not an issue with Novak, who is under-sized, under-athletic, and under-talented but makes up for it with Eckstein-ien hustle and grit and an occasionally deft outside shot (which is the majority of his offensive game). He also manages to grab about five boards per game despite being just 6-4, which goes back to that whole constant effort thing. Since Novak hit six threes his freshman year against the Gophers they've done a pretty good job of holding him down, but I can't get that six three game out of my head. So yeah, I'm scared of a 6-4, floppy haired, mediocre athlete. But in my defense, he is left-handed.
So I guess I really don't know here. The Gophers are clearly better than I thought, especially against decent squads, based on my predicted massacres at the hands of Va Tech and Illinois which clearly didn't materialize. I don't know, with Ralph playing well (and in the paint) and with Julian Welch's influence clearly affecting this team they look really, really good. They can absolutely win this game, and I am very close to predicting them to do so. The only thing holding me back is that Michigan shoots so many threes and the Gophers are so completely terrible at defending them. I think that will bite them in the ass, and another winnable road game goes by the wayside.
Michigan 63, Minnesota 60.