Tonight, the 9th ranked University of Minnesota Golden Gophers host the 5th ranked Michigan Wolverines in what should be a vintage Big Ten matchup. Both teams are 3-1 in the gauntlet that is the Big Ten, trying to keep pace with Indiana and a surprising Wisconsin team. More importantly both teams are coming off road losses and want to prove they belong at the top of Big Ten and the National Rankings. Well guys, here’s your opportunity.
In March of 2007, Tubby Smith was hired at the University of Minnesota. I was student. I imagined the Gophers ranked fifth in the country, hosting Duke to a full house at Williams Arena with ESPN cameras everywhere and Dicky V in the building. It was going to be so awesome; a return to the glory days of Gopher Hoops. But then i graduated and it never really happened. In fact, the Gophs struggled to make the tournament and finish above .500 in the Big Ten; let alone play in games that had any sort of National Relevance.
In some ways, tonight’s game feels like a culmination of that imagination. A proper beginning to a Tubby Smith era that has had difficulty getting underway. Obviously, this game won’t make or break the Gophers season but it has the potential to be a defining game, or an exposure game.
But what’s most intriguing about this game is that it presents a matchup of contrasting types.
Michigan can straight-up score. They rank 5th in the country in true shooting and 1st in the nation in points per possession, a stat that doesn’t bode well for the occasionally turnover-prone Gophers.
However, the Wolverines wont be facing a slouch defense. Minnesota ranks 1st in the Big Ten in both steals and blocked shots (10 per game). Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe give the Gophers the advantage in the front court and Michigan has had their share of problems with the longer, more athletic teams they’ve squared up against. Both Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins are regarded as tough defenders but they’ll certainly have their hands full trying to guard, perhaps the best point guards in the nation, Trey Burke.
A key factor in this game will be Michigan’s ability to hit the three. It’s tough to score inside on Tubby’s zone. That being said, it is possible to get good looks from beyond the arc. And if Burke, Nik Stauskas and Tim Hardaway Jr. start getting threes to fall, the Gophers could find themselves in a hole quickly, much like they did Saturday against Indiana.
The Trey Burke/Andre Hollins matchup should be a good one. Both point guards have elite athleticism and put on a show in last year’s Big Ten tournament. While Hollins has put up impressive numbers this year, Thursday night’s game will be a good barometer–giving us a glimpse how he stacks up against one of the best in the country.
If Minnesota can keep the D locked up and Michigan doesn’t catch fire from beyond the arc, the Gophers have a good chance to beat their first top-5 opponent since 1994. Tune in to watch two super-athletic squads square off in a matchup that will, at times, look like a fast-paced NBA2K game. It’s an important game for both teams and a great close to the first quarter of the Big Ten season.