What a week this could be for the Michigan basketball team.
With home games against Minnesota tonight and Michigan State Sunday, the Wolverines (4-0 Big Ten, 11-6 overall) have the chance to extend their longest winning streak in a decade to 13 games – which could include Michigan’s first victory over its arch-rival from East Lansing since a 79-69 win on Jan. 10, 1998 a game the Wolverines forfeited.
But, as has been the case throughout this streak, Michigan coach Tommy Amaker has preached the principle of “one step at a time” to his young team.
And tonight could be a very treacherous step.
Minnesota (1-2 Big Ten, 9-5 overall) is coming off one of its most complete games of the year, a 77-69 victory over Michigan State on Saturday. In that game, Big Ten preseason Player of the Year Rick Rickert tossed in 21, as did fellow forward Michael Bauer, and the Golden Gophers got their first Big Ten win.
“They played extremely well in that game,” said Amaker of Minnesota. “This is a great challenge that we have in front of us.”
On paper, Minnesota appears to be the type of team capable of giving Michigan fits, at least in the low post. Rickert, averaging 14.7 points per game, stands 6-foot-11 and 216 pounds – a build similar to Michigan freshman Chris Hunter. The Golden Gopher is capable of playing low or high, making him exceptionally tough to guard.
Throw in fellow forwards Bauer, Maurice Hargrove and center Jerry Holman, and the Gophers often play with, essentially, four forwards on the court.
“They are a team that has all the ingredients and the talent,” Amaker said. “Certainly Minnesota’s size and their depth on the front line concerns us.”
Michigan forward Graham Brown said he believes that the Wolverines are capable of hanging with the Minnesota big men.
“We need to do the little things like box out and make sure we get on the glass, and we’ll get some easy baskets and rebounds down low,” Brown said.
The most curious fact about the Gophers is that, despite their heavy reliance on their frontcourt players, they have struggled to dictate the rebounding battle. Michigan State hammered Minnesota on the glass, outrebounding the Gophers 46-33 despite the loss. Wisconsin, a team Michigan beat in the rebounding column, 35-30, also manhandled the Gophers in rebounds, 40-29.
Michigan can take solace in those numbers, and in the fact that the Wolverines have used the man-to-man and 2-3 zone defenses effectively throughout the Big Ten campaign. Amaker also might use a matchup zone – a combination of zone and man-to-man defenses – which would allow the Wolverines to maintain pressure on Rickert while also keeping the zone intact.
The Wolverines also will try to take advantage of their quickness at the guard spots. Freshman Daniel Horton has been spectacular during the 11-game winning streak, as has senior LaVell Blanchard.
“(Blanchard’s) playing at a very high level right now,” Minnesota coach Dan Monson said. “I think he’s playing as one of the premier players in the Big Ten. As most players that senior year, the comfort level is very high -experience, you just can’t put a value on.”
The teams split two games last year, with Minnesota winning at home, 90-82, and Michigan doing the same 10 days later, 71-69, on a last second shot by Robinson.