By now, everyone knows the story of Michigan’s first loss of the season that came at the hands of Ohio State on Sunday. After falling down by more than 20 points in the first half, a second half effort fell just short and the Wolverines failed to set a record for best start in school history, only managing to tie the 1985-86 outfit that matched the 16-0 of this year’s team.
There is good news and bad news for Michigan tonight. The good news is that Michigan has a chance to avenge their first Big Ten loss with another big-time battle on the home court of a nationally-ranked opponent in Minnesota (7pm on ESPN). The bad news is that Michigan has a serious chance of losing its second straight game tonight as well.
While neither outcome would drastically change the course of the season, there is no denying this game’s importance. With that in mind, let’s analyze tonight’s keys of the game:
1. Get off to a Fast Start: In Minnesota’s two losses to date – an 89-71 beating from Duke in a preseason tournament and an 88-81 loss at Indiana last Saturday – the Golden Gophers started trailing big early on, falling behind by double digits fewer than 12 minutes into both games. The Blue Devils had a comfortable six- to 11-point lead throughout the first half before taking a seven-point lead into the halftime break while the Hoosiers continuously stretched their own lead over Minnesota to 23 points by the break.
It was no secret that Michigan’s loss to Ohio State was caused in some part by a lackadaisical first half that saw the Wolverines trail by as many as 21 points before cutting the Buckeye lead to 12 at the 20-minute mark. And even though the Maize and Blue staged a beautiful and methodical comeback that eventually saw the game tied at 46 with six minutes remaining, Michigan just didn’t seem to have the execution needed down the stretch to win a big-time road game.
Former Wolverine Zack Novak surmised that the comeback effort probably drained a lot of the energy out of Michigan throughout the game and at least played a factor in their struggles to close it out in the end in a recent interview on UMHoops.com.
In Minnesota’s biggest win to date, an 84-67 victory at Illinois just last week, the Gophers fell behind by a couple points early on but recovered to take a nice seven-point lead later in the first half and maintained a four-point margin at halftime. If Michigan lets the home team get off to another hot start and looks flustered early on, the Barn is going to jump all over the Wolverines and Michigan will be well on its way to back-to-back losses.
2. Play Smart Defense: Neither Michigan’s offense nor its defense was up to par in that ugly first half in Columbus on Sunday, but most concerning to me was how easily Ohio State scored to take their big, early lead. Aaron Craft was getting one screen and finding wide open lanes to the basket, turnovers were leading to easy fast-break points, and the Buckeyes exploited a number of mismatches before some adjustments were made and the Wolverines eventually held Ohio State to 56 points, its second-lowest output of the season. When Mitch McGary was on the floor, John Beilein often had his team switch to a 2-3 zone defense when it was a viable option to help hide his poor help defense, and I expect a little more of the same tonight.
Look for Beilein to show Minnesota a couple different looks for at least a few possessions each, including some 1-3-1 and 2-3. When Michigan deploys their standard man defense, they should be sticking to the scouting report as much as possible. The Wolverines simply cannot let a non-big guard monster Trevor Mbakwe in the paint and they can never lose Rodney Williams in the lane or either Hollins (Andre and Austin) from behind the arc. Minnesota doesn’t have the number of offensive weapons that a team like Michigan touts, which means that Beilein should do everything he can to make sure these key players don’t beat Michigan.
3. Run, Run, Run: The final key to Michigan’s loss to Ohio State was its inability to score easy points. It sounds ridiculous to say that Michigan had trouble scoring for once this season after being in the top 15 in the country in both shooting percentage and points per game, but the 53 points Michigan managed were nine points fewer than their lowest output up to that point, a 62-point performance in their previous game against Nebraska. One of the biggest reasons for this was the lack of a transition game.
Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. are lethal in the open court, providing pretty much guaranteed points on any fast break attempt, but Ohio State successfully shut down that aspect of Michigan’s game in not allowing the Wolverines to put up a single fast-break point. When playing against Minnesota, one thing is certain: there are points to be had. The Gophers have given up an average of 88.5 points per game in those two losses and coughed the ball up 32 times combined, which would put them just slightly above their season average of 15 turnovers per game.
It will be absolutely crucial for Michigan to take advantage of the turnovers Minnesota will hand over and to rebound the ball well to start the break as often as possible. Obviously John Beilein wants to play the smart game, which means Michigan will set up a half-court offense whenever running is not a strong option, but he will assuredly encourage Burke and Co. to push the ball up court whenever the floor looks open.
Prediction: Sunday’s game was the first in which Michigan did not look like a sure-fire Final Four team at this point in the season, and tonight’s game is not any easier on paper. Minnesota has two of the best athletes in the country in Williams and Mbakwe and will surely be looking to ride those two and their crowd to a huge victory tonight, but Michigan is also certain to be taking out their anger on Tubby Smith’s team. I expect the game to be close throughout with Michigan jumping out to a nice five- to seven-point cushion in the first half before holding on in the second to win 80-73.