Gophers at Michigan: 5 things to watch for

Jace Frederick

It seemed like a missed opportunity when the Gophers fell 63-60 to Michigan back on Jan. 2.

A missed opportunity because the general consensus was this Michigan team, which was already minus star center Mitch McGary, was that it was no where near as good as the national runner up squad it sported a year ago.

Well, the general consensus was wrong. Michigan (20-7, 12-3) sits atop the Big Ten and is in the driver seat for a conference championship. And yes, that Jan. 2 game on Williams Arena was a missed opportunity, because it cost Minnesota a chance for what would have been a huge resume-boosting victory. 

Now the Gophers (18-11, 7-9) appear on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, but are far from safe.

A win on Saturday in Ann Arbor, Mich. would go a long way toward changing that.

Here are 5 things to watch for:

Defending Zak Irvin: This one shouldn't be that difficult. Irvin is only averaging 7.3 points per game. The key is to defend him beyond the arc.

Irvin has hit on 42 percent of his triples this season. The freshman guard was the biggest reason the Wolverines topped Minnesota on Jan. 2 as he scored 15 points on five deep balls.

DeAndre Mathieu: Mathieu played what Gophers head coach Richard Pitino called one of the point guard's best games on Tuesday in Minnesota's win vs. Iowa. Yes, Mathieu finished with 19 points as he sliced through the lane and got to the rack on countless occassions — we've seen that.

What he did so well was control the Minnesota offense. Mathieu was the conductor of the Gophers best offensive orchestra of the season. That's not a coincidence. His success is imperative for the success of the Gophers. 

Mathieu finished with seven assists and just one turnover on Tuesday and was aggressive enough to beat the traps that had been bothering him of late. He'll need a similar performance for Minnesota on Saturday.

Winning the battle down low: Michigan's strengths are in its guard play. But the last time these two teams met, it was the Wolverines who also had the best player down low.

Junior forward Jon Horford put up 14 points and nine boards as he outbattled the Gophers on the interior. If Minnesota is to have a shot on Saturday, that can't happen again.

Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason need to out-produce Michigan's big men, either together or through one of them having a big game.

Michigan's Offense: As good as Iowa's offense has been this year, statistically, Michigan's is even better. Here's a look at some of the Wolverines numbers, by KenPom.com (National Rank in Parenthesis):

Off. Efficiency           TO%            3 pt.%         2 pt. %            Block% against        

121.9 (3rd)          14.7 (11th)   38.9 (27th)   53.3 (21st)         7.7 (38th)

Yeah, there's not a weakness there.

Scoring while playing slow: Michigan scores, but it doesn't play fast. The Wolverines are 326nd in the nation in pace of play. The Wolverines don't have trouble playing effectively on the offensive end at a snail's pace, but the Gophers have.

A lot of times it's when the Gophers are relegated to half court sets that they settle for outside jumpers and turn the ball over.

So Minnesota has two options:

1. Speed up Michigan 

2. Find a way to score in the halfcourt set by staying balanced and attacking the rim.

The Gophers aren't likely to speed up the Wolverines, as Minnesota tends to play at its opponent's preferred tempo. So the Gophers are going to have to do the former. They need to get the ball inside, either by throwing it down to their big men or getting to the lane off the bounce, and force the defense to suck in so they can get good looks on the perimeter.

 

KenPom Game Prediction: Michigan 74, Gophers 65 (Minnesota has an 18 percent chance of victory)