That being said of course, this is going to be an extremely difficult game for the Gophers. If college basketball is won and lost with the back court, Michigan is in great shape because they may have the best back court in the country with Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, and Nik Stauskas.
Burke is a national player of the year candidate and the best point guard in the country. He's the rare point guard who excels as a distributor (7.1 assists per game, tops in the Big 10) but who also scores in bunches (18 per, 3rd). He can do this because he's almost unguardable. He shoots a very high percentage as a guard (52%) because he's able to get easy transition buckets and assists since Michigan simply just does not allow offensive rebounds to their opponents (#2 in the country). In the half court he can hit the open shot and is also quick enough to beat most other guards and get into the lane, either getting or finding teammates for easy shots. He's similar to Andre Hollins in that they both really like the step back jumper after getting the defender off balance, and it will be imperative that the Gophers force Burke to settle for long jumpers rather than let him get into the lane the way Ferrell and Oladipo did on Saturday. I'll say again, keeping Burke out of the lane is the #1 key on Thursday. Easier said than done, but if the Gopher defense is as good I think it is they should be up for the task.
When Burke drives the other two set up on the wing. Hardaway has really tightened up his shot selection this year and it's helped him reach career highs in scoring (16.1) and shooting percentage (both 2s and 3s). The percentage of his attempts that come from three has dropped each year as he's learned not to settle for the contested 3-pointer (which was something you could always count on), and he's about as athletic as it comes when he's running the floor (not Rodney Williams athletic, but human athletic). Another reason Hardaway may be more judicious with his three-point attempts is he's not needed there as much anymore, because Stauskas has come in as the least heralded of the three Michigan freshman and ended up leading them in scoring (12.7) by being the dead-eye shooter Beilein loves. Stauskas is hitting 51% of his three-point attempts while leading the conference in makes . With so many weapons for Michigan (Burke, Hardaway, and Glenn Robinson) it's easy for teams to lose track of Stauskas when he spots up, particularly in transition, and he makes them pay. He's hit a three in every game this year other than their loss to Ohio State on Sunday, and the last time he hit fewer than two in a game was November. Finding Stauskas and limited to two or fewer made three pointers is probably key #2 for this game.
If Minnesota has a clear advantage it's in the paint, where Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams will match up with Glenn Robinson and Jordan Morgan (and Mitch McGary). Robinson is 6-6 and 210 and is probably better suited to be on the wing, but he's more comfortable in close (he's not that different than Rodney was last year). He's another major reason why Michigan ranks #1 in offensive efficiency this year (he shoots 59%), and he's one of only two "good" offensive rebounders on the Wolverines, so keeping him off the glass will be imperative. Morgan is the other good offensive rebounder Michigan has (he's about on par with Williams), and although he does little else than set picks and grab boards he has the size and strength to battle Mbakwe, although looking at their match-ups from two seasons ago Mbakwe averaged 15 and 9 while Morgan failed to grab a rebound in the game at Williams so maybe that's not as much of a concern.
As far as Michigan's bench goes the main impact guy is McGary, the 6-10, 250 lbs. freshman who was a top 5 recruit this year by pretty much everybody. He gets a good amount of minutes spelling Morgan and is not only big but an excellent athlete as well. He's still kind of figuring it out (averages only 5 ppg) but is immensely talented and is absolutely going to have a breakout game one of these days here, let's just hope it isn't this game. He's an absolute monster on the glass where his offensive and defensive rebounding percentages when he's in the game are actually are better than Mbakwe's and he averages six rebounds per game despite playing an average of just 15 minutes. He's a fouling machine (averages 6 fouls per 40 minutes) so keeping him off the floor in foul trouble is possible and preferable.
Not much here for the rest of the bench - similar to the Gophers they're very reliant on the starters and have a handful of players who can spot fill minutes (only 9 guys played against Ohio State). Spike Albrecht is the back-up point guard and Caris Levert the wing guy - both can hit threes at a pretty good clip (38% and 42%). Jon Horford is the fourth big guy off the bench, but at this point is still known more for defense than offense, and everyone else is a deep bench guy where if we see much of them on Thursday either the Gophers have done something right or something very, very wrong.
I admit, I thought the Gophers had a better chance of winning in Bloomington than they did beating Michigan, even at home. This Wolverine team legitimately might be the best in the entire country, and Burke is just ridiculous guiding that offense. They never, ever turn it over (2nd best in the country), shoot 58% from two (5th) and 39% from three (19th) with four of their top six guys shooting 52% from the floor or better and of the six guys who have taken the most three pointers five of them hit at least 37% including the #2 guy in the Big Ten. In order to win this game the Gophers are going to have to score, which is possible because Michigan isn't nearly as elite defensively as offensively (although they're still very good), but could be difficult because, as I said, Michigan simply does not allow offensive rebounds to their opponents and that's been a huge weapon for the Gophers. The good news is that Michigan has been sub-par creating turnovers this year as well as defending the two-point shot, so Minnesota should have opportunities to score plenty, and perhaps will actually take care of the ball going against an opponent who is not particularly adept at taking it.
One other interesting stat of note is that the Gophers play at a significantly faster tempo than Michigan, and they should try to push it as often as possible on Thursday. Although Michigan puts up a ton of points they do so mostly through their efficient half court offense rather than by pushing tempo and getting quick shots. It seems counter intuitive with a point guard like Burke, shooters like Stauskas and athletes like Hardaway and Robinson, but Michigan prefers not to run. So in the half court we're going to see the most efficient offense in the country against the 19th best defense. Man this game is huge.
Because Michigan's complimentary players can score so efficiently, the big key here will be for the Hollins brothers to handle Burke in one-on-one situations so the help defense doesn't get sucked in, leading to open shots. If they can limit him to a lot of long, step-back type jumpers that are contested it will go a long way to giving the Gophers the opportunity to win this game. This is Andre Hollins' chance to announce himself to the world. He's been noticed, but it's time to become a household name. Even as I started typing this I was planning on picking Michigan to win, but the more I type and the more I think the more I remember how the Gophers stormed back against Indiana in that second half. That, more than anything, showed me what kind of team this is. Then there's the Michigan State game. And the Northwestern game. And the Illinois game. This is a different team than we're used to, I'm convinced of it. Home game, versus a top team? I changed my mind. They're gonna do it.
Minnesota 77, Michigan 72.
Of course, if they get off to another horrific start all bets are off.