USA Today

Michigan pregame

The Big Game. Don’t be nervous about it Minnesota, cherish it! When Michigan takes on the Golden Gophers this evening in Williams Arena it will be for 5th place in the Big Ten.

The Storyline

With wins against Michigan State, Indiana, and Wisconsin in the past two weeks the Michigan Wolverines have worked their way to 7-6 in conference play and 17-9 overall.  The Wolverines are fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives and a win in Minneapolis extending their winning streak to four games would be massive for tournament momentum.

Minnesota is also 7-6 in league play building their overall record to 19-7.  Tonight they are playing for their 20th win this early in the season for the first time in nine years. If Minnesota gets the win it will be their first time with 20 wins this early in the year in 20 seasons (Final Four year). 

Michigan is a veteran club with an eight man rotation with names you will recognize. Leading scorers Derrick Walton Jr and Zak Irvin are now seniors along with top bench reserves Mark Donnal and Duncan Robinson who are also in their final year. The veteran play doesn’t stop there, juniors DJ Wilson (Michigan online roster says Wilson is a junior while the preseason mags say sophomore) and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman also start with Wilson being a double figure scoring big and Muhammad-Ali listing at second in assists. 

Michigan’s eight man rotation has six upperclassmen while Minnesota has settled into an eight man rotation that uses four upperclassmen (a senior in Akeem Springs and three juniors). Michigan has an edge in experience plus John Beilein has dominated Tubby Smith and Richard Pitino.  The Michigan coach has earned his team nine straight wins against the Gophers and 13 of the last 14 games including six straight at Williams Arena. 

Minnesota fans are building their excitement but still being cautious about the NCAA Tournament.  They’ve seen this team falter before (the five game losing streak was not that long ago nor was an 8 game win season, and Tubby’s teams in Minnesota were famous for their February lulls) so, while looking at the NCAA Tournament projections is fun, most fans are going to wait until conference win nine is locked up.  Then, and only then is looking at those Big Dance projections is safe and exciting.

Richard Pitino is well aware of this so yesterday in his press conference he talked about Williams Arena needing “a terrific environment tomorrow, it needs to be the best since I’ve been here because it’s a very important game”.  Pitino said Michigan looked like a Final Four team in their recent win against Michigan State while Beilein said that Minnesota’s defense is their key to success “from the shot blockers to the quickness defending on the perimeter”.

Another reason to be at Williams Arena tonight is to honor long time Public Address announcer Dick Jonckowski who is in his 31st season as the Williams Arena voice of “Golden. Gopher. Basketball!”

The Numbers

Derrick Walton is the key to the Michigan success averaging 14.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and a steal a game shooting 43.4 percent from the arc.  Walton will take 59 percent of his shots from the arc so expect him to hoist five or six treys this evening against the Gopher defense. He’s also a 90 percent free throw shooter and a 2.3 to 1 assist to turnover ratio guy so Walton is a senior playing in matured veteran way. Walton is coming off a bad shooting game against Wisconsin (1 of 8) but he was outstanding in the games leading up to the Badger win.

Michigan senior Zak Irvin does lead the team in minutes (35 per game), is second in scoring (12.8 per), third in rebounding (4.4), and second in assists (3.3).  The all around talent is there.  Fact is though the senior has struggled with his touch all year making 32 percent of his treys and shooting just under 39 percent overall in Big Ten play.  Before his 6 of 12 shooting against Wisconsin when he had 18, Irvin came into that game on a run of 4 of 32 from the field.

Things to know individually: Abdur-Rahkman has made 14 of his last 23 three-point attempts, sophomore Moritz Wagner had his first double-double of the year at Indiana plus scored a combined 40 in the Wisconsin and Michigan State wins, and Duncan Robinson has made multiple threes in the last six Michigan games and is shooting 41 percent at the arc for the year.

The Wolverines typically don’t have great team rebounding numbers in the Big Ten because of the way they play under Coach Beilein.  The Michigan line-up traditionally shoots well at the arc (39 percent in Big Ten play) but losses on the glass (32 to 27 on average).  They have three point weapons all over the line-up: Walton is shooting 46 percent at the arc in Big Ten play, Wagner 37%, DJ Wilson 40%, Abdur-Rahkman 52%, and Robinson 49%.

The Match-Ups

Bigs.  Michigan has size up front in 6-foot-10, 235 pound German sophomore Moritz Wagner and 6-foot-10 junior DJ Wilson who has had a breakout season.  Wilson is long but he plays the game of a wing while Wagner is a face-up skilled big.  Both are about 235/240 pounds.

Wagner will have Reggie Lynch on him, Wilson will see Gopher power forward Jordan Murphy who has recorded three straight double-doubles and is the current Big Ten Player of the Week honoree. Six-foot-9 Mark Donnal comes of the Wolverine bench as does Gopher Eric Curry.  Curry will play a big part in defending all three of the Michigan bigs. 

Wilson leads Michigan on the glass but he is not the physical player that Murphy is.  Jordan will give Wilson issues with his active off the ball movement while the skilled game of Wilson will have clean looks at the rim all game against the 6-foot-6 Murphy.

As far as Lynch and Wagner go, Lynch has to be disciplined to stay on his feet and move his feet with the vast array of offensive moves that Wagner will throw at him.  If Lynch is undisciplined in his approach defensively Wagner will put him on the bench early in foul trouble.  If Reggie is physical and smart he will not only limit Wagner, but be on the floor to score on Wagner in the post the other way.

Zak Irvin vs Amir Coffey.  A senior versus a freshman.  Two extremely versatile players that do a lot for their clubs.  Irvin leads Michigan in minutes while Coffey has been leading the Gophers in minutes as of late.  Both are excellent passers, both rebound, both score on the move.  Irvin is a more consistent position defender and will look for his offense more, Coffey is more gifted all around and has been the better shooter.  Irvin is stronger, Amir is taller and longer. 

Senior Scoring Guard. Akeem Springs had been Minnesota’s most reliable perimeter shooter until last game when he had a nightmare missing on 1 of 12.  That said Springs made the game winner against Indiana and always defends.  He will see Abdur-Rahkman who is a little taller but Springs is stronger.  Muhammad-Ali has been a steady shooter as of late but he won’t take many shots.  He’s more of an all around worker for Coach Beilein. Because Irvin looks for his offense more don’t be surprise to see Springs on him and Coffey on Abdur-Rahkman but size wise having Springs on Abdur-Rahkman makes the most sense.

Walton vs Mason. Here you have the tale of the veteran do-everything playmaking guards.  Both Nate Mason and Derrick Walton are having fabulous seasons.  All Big Ten like seasons.  Both go on scoring binges at times with Walton firing at the arc often while Mason will attack to attempt more with his pull-ups or touch shots over size.

Mason creates more quality scoring chances for his teammates but is not as consistent as a shooter as Walton is.  Walton is the more physical player and the better rebounder but he is more prone to a bad turnover.  Both will have some questionable times in terms of shot selection but Walton is the better shooter.


Michigan has not been the zone team this year that they’ve been in the past.  This is the first Minnesota team in a long while that would feel confident against a zone but Michigan doesn’t use it as much.  The Gophers have struggled with the halfcourt trap from teams but traditional zones like what Cocah Beilein has used in the past is something Minnesota has had great success against.  Instead Michigan has been playing well with their man to man so this is like preparing for a new team despite the familiar names.

The losing streak.  Richard Pitino hasn’t beaten John Beilein.  Minnesota was also terrible against Michigan before Pitino got here.  Fact is these are very different teams from those in recent past, and both teams are playing very well.  They have the same record in league play with both teams coming in on winning streaks.

So it’s Minnesota with the home court edge versus Michigan and their dominance over the Gophers.  Tough game to pick.  I feel like Walton and his historic 1,000 point, 500 rebounds, and 400 assist career (first in Michigan history) has the edge on Mason right now with the Gophers having an edge on the wing and the teams being pretty equal up front.

There are three factors to watch match-up wise that will tip the scales: Pitino vs Beilein, Mason vs Walton, Lynch vs Wagner.  If Lynch is in foul trouble that gives Michigan a huge edge that will mean those other two match-ups must be at least even for the Gophers.  A lot hinges on Lynch up front being in the game (as well as Mason matching Walton). 

The time is right for the losing streak to end. Minnesota by three. But if Lynch is on the bench in foul trouble all bets are off.

Minnesota 76 Michigan 73.

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