Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Hoops Preview: Gophers vs. Wolverines

Oh hey there.  Been a while.  I didn't mean to not post the entire holiday break, but I was sort of busy and extremely lazy so here we are.  Doesn't matter now though, because I'm back as the Gophers kick-off the Big Ten season, and the real beginning of the Richard Pitino era (hopefully it ends up being an era or something), and I, for one, and absolutely thrilled they're opening the conference season at home against Michigan - it's the perfect measuring stick.  I'm still not exactly sure what to make of this Gopher team, but we should be able to learn a whole lot Thursday night.

Michigan is a good, but not great team, that sits at 8-4 with three completely understandable losses (road games at Duke and Iowa State, home game vs. Arizona) and one weird loss (vs. Charlotte in Puerto Rico).  They rank highly according to at #20, but that's not so much higher than the Gophers (who rank #34).  They're also without their dominant (potentially) big man in Mitch McGary leaving ho-hum guys Jordan Morgan (in his seventh year) and Jon Horford as their only real post players, meaning the Wolverines don't have a clear match-up advantage over the Gophers.  Perfect opponent to open.

If the Gophers in, they'll be in the running for an NCAA bid since this is the kind of game an NCAA tournament team wins.  If they lose, we will know that the NCAA is not a likely result this year.  Pretty simple stuff.  If this was a road game you can't really definitely say you learned anything because road conference games can be super weird, while a home win over somebody like Purdue tells you nothing (though a loss would) and a loss at home to somebody like Ohio State doesn't really tell you anything either, and a win might not either.  But this is pretty simple - Michigan is pretty much the demarcation line between good Big Ten teams and bad ones - so win this game and things look good for the season outlook.

It's also an interesting test in another way because many of the people who criticized the Pitino hire liked to say that the uptempo style he'd like to run wouldn't work in the Big Ten.  Michigan is one of the slowest team's in the country (rank #304) and behind just Wisconsin, Illinois, and Northwestern in the conference.  Michigan doesn't turn it over and they love to shoot the three ball (this is a Beilein team after all), and are quite good at it, so if the press + zone isn't on it's game there is serious potential for Michigan to blow this game open - in fact, I'd say a Michigan double-digit win is actually more likely than a Gopher double-digit win, even if, spoiler alert, I'm going to pick the Gophers to win the game.  This year's Michigan team actually profiles a lot like a typical Wisconsin team, so the Gophers will need to be highly in sync on defense to hold Michigan down.

The Wolverines are lead by one of the most interesting players in the NCAA in my opinion in Nik Stauskas.  With Tre Burke and Tim Hardaway off to the NBA somebody was going to have to step up on this team and many assumed it would be Glenn Robinson.  Although Robinson's scoring is up (14.2ppg vs. 11.0 ppg) it's because he's taking a few more shots and his percentages and efficiencies remain basically the same.  Stauskas, on the other hand, has exploded and completely changed his game.  Last season he was the designated 3-point bomber, this year he's expanded his game and become their go to guy (18.2ppg vs. 11.0ppg).  He's still a major threat from 3 (48% on 5.5 attempts per game), but he's also been taking the ball to the rim more and that's resulted in a lot more free throw opportunities.  He's the rare player who has upped his possessions but upped his efficiency as well, and he's very dangerous spotting up in transition.  Frankly he's terrifying.

Michigan's other threats are all guards as well in freshman point guard Derrick Walton, freshman wing Zak Irvin, and sophomore wing Caris LeVert.  Walton is the team's true point guard, and like most freshmen point guards he's struggled with turnovers and his shot.  He's basically the team's top ballhandler but is also the only turnover prone player on the team, which works out well for the Gophers.  Irvin is a versatile scorer but has basically turned himself into this year's Stauskas, which has to be kind of infuriating for Michigan fans since I feel like he could be so much more.  Then again I suppose you could do worse than 40% on 5.5 three point attempts per game with minimal turnovers.  Finally, LeVert is another primary ball handler and another guy who has upped his usage big time this year (from under 3 shots per game to over 10).  Overall he's been very efficient and, surprise, never turns it over, but he's also been really all over the map in terms of effectiveness as a scorer (his last five games he's scored 24-4-15-1-16).  Not letting LeVert be the third scorer the Wolverines need will be a major key for Minnesota.

Outside of that core there's not much offense to be found.  Spike Albrecht has the ability to hit a bunch of threes (see: first half of National Title game) but mainly has proven himself to be a capable back-up point guard.  As previously mentioned big guys Horford and Morgan grab some rebounds, set some picks, and can block some shots (which is where they'll mostly be effective against the Gophers - turning back guard penetration).  Horford is a little more versatile as he has a little bit of a jump shot while Morgan has none, but neither should make any kind of major impact on the game offensively.

In a lot of ways this Michigan team is built to take apart a team that plays the way the Gophers do - slow it down, don't turn it over against the press, and exploit the open three-point opportunities which will present themselves against the zone and in transition.  I'd actually really like to see the Gophers mix in a good bit of man-to-man in this game since I don't think Michigan can take advantage of any mis-matches, but a well drilled zone team can shut down a 3-point team as well by closing out on threes and making the offense take bad shots (see: Syracuse vs. Villanova).  Should be fun to see.

Basically if the Gophers are a NCAA Tournament caliber team they'll win this game.  If they don't win this game, most likely they aren't a NCAA Tournament team.  I believe that either the zone will work, or Pitino is a good enough coach and a coach willing to make changes that the Gophers will end up in a man-to-man and I think the advantage shifts to the Gophers in that case.  I choose to believe.

Minnesota 74, Michigan 66

Also, before we get to the pictures, check out this Gopher Hoops Rube Roundtable including yours truly put together by the guys over at From the Barn, a tradition in it's third year (I did not participate last season because I completely forgot).  Anyway, it's good stuff, check it out. 

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