Most observers expected that No. 10 Michigan’s first opponent in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals would be Northwestern, but it looks like the Wildcats have another long offseason on their hands after losing to Minnesota on Thursday.
The Wolverines have much more to play for than the Golden Gophers — Michigan is fighting for higher seeding in the NCAA Tournament, while Minnesota coach Tubby Smith’s crew is destined for the NIT.
Minnesota was a surprise Big Dance contender early in the Big Ten season despite losing star forward Trevor Mbakwe, but the team quickly fell apart. Still, the Gophers have talent, and they only lost by five points to the Wolverines in the teams only meeting back on New Years’ Day.
Here’s a position-by-position look at the matchup, which tips off at 6:30 p.m. on Friday:
Point guard: Trey Burke vs. Andre Hollins
It’s a tale of two talented freshmen point guards, one of whom has established himself and one who is still learning what it takes to be a floor general in the Big Ten.
Burke, at this point, is Michigan’s best player — he leads his team in scoring with 14.6 points per game, and his dynamic play is a big reason the Wolverines have improved from last season despite losing Darius Morris. For those reasons, Burke was named Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Year. In the teams’ first meeting, he scored a career-high 27 points against the Gophers.
Coming into the season, the big question for Minnesota was who would take over at point guard. Hollins, who was rated a better recruit than Burke by Rivals.com, eventually emerged. Though he’s athletic and talented, Hollins is still a work in progress — he has more turnovers (54) than assists (47) this year.
Shooting Guard: Stu Douglass vs. Joe Coleman
Neither player will ever be confused as a star for his respective team, but Douglass has the clear edge. He simply brings much more to the table than Coleman — leadership, shooting, toughness, steadiness, experience and most importantly, defense. Douglass was still struggling from 3-point range when these teams first met, but he’s improved as the season has wore on.
Like Hollins, Coleman is a freshman who is still adjusting to the game at the college level, averaging just 5.4 points per game and shooting 41.7 percent from the field. He’s entered Minnesota’s starting lineup for good in recent games as Smith continues to build for the future.
Wing Guard: Tim Hardaway Jr. vs. Austin Hollins
Minnesota finally begins to put out some experience when its lineup reaches the wings. Hollins certainly isn’t a veteran, but he’s started 31 of 32 games in his sophomore season. Averaging 8.7 points per game, the 6-foot-4 guard isn’t a great shooter, but he does have the ability to knock down 3-pointers, boasting a 36.8 shooting percentage from long range.
One would think that Hardaway Jr. — one of Michigan’s most important offensive threats — would have a significant advantage in this matchup. But the sophomore guard’s struggles this season are impossible to ignore. Hardaway Jr. has shot just 28.9 percent from 3-point range after shooting 36.7 percent last season.
The Miami native has shown signs of breaking out of his season-long slump in the team’s last two games, scoring 25 points on just seven shots against Illinois and making three of his six 3-point attempts at Penn State. The Wolverines hope it’s a sign of things to come as the postseason gets underway.
Edge: Hardaway Jr.
Wing Forward: Zack Novak vs. Rodney Williams
Here is where it gets a little tricky for Michigan. Novak’s contribution to the team is well documented at this point, as the senior provides steady leadership, toughness and the occasional hot-shooting night.
Williams, meanwhile, is possibly the most athletic player in the conference. He’s usually good for a highlight-reel dunk every night. But despite his athletic gifts, Williams — now in his third season — still has yet to emerge as a great basketball player, with little offensive skill to speak of.
That could give the Wolverines an edge, but Williams is still taller and quicker than Novak — with the former’s only real game being to attack the rim, the latter could be vulnerable. Novak will have to play well to keep the Gophers’ only double figure-scoring starter off the score sheet.
Center: Jordan Morgan vs. Ralph Sampson III/Elliot Eliason
It’s not clear who exactly Morgan will square off with on Friday. The 6-foot-11 Sampson III injured his knee in practice earlier this week and sat out on Thursday night against Northwestern. Should Sampson III not be able to go, Eliason will take his place, as he did against the Wildcats.
Neither Minnesota center is much of an offensive threat, though they are presences in the paint with their height and length. The key for Morgan will be to avoid foul trouble and play solid defense despite giving up several inches.
The Gophers have the definitive advantage here. Sixth option Julian Welch averages 10.2 points per game, and Chip Armelin and Maverick Ahanmisi can provide scoring bursts. The question for the Wolverines is whether junior guard Matt Vogrich can hit 3-pointers and if inconsistent sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz can build off his 17-point performance against the Nittany Lions last week.
Michigan isn’t playing for as much as it was last season, when prevailing logic was that the team needed a win in Indianapolis to cement its spot in the NCAA Tournament. But the Wolverines are fighting for seeding, which is more than NIT-bound Minnesota can say.
Plus, Beilein’s group will be more rested than the Gophers, and the Michigan coach’s offense is notoriously hard to face with little preparation time.
Prediction: Michigan 64, Minnesota 57