Well, here we are again, at the start of the conference season.
The Gophers' Big Ten opener tonight is suddenly significantly less threatening than it appeared at the beginning of the season. Michigan returns six players from a team that made it to the national championship game in April, but after losing dynamic guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., the Wolverines haven't seemed themselves in the non-conference schedule, struggling to compete with good teams and ultimately losing four games, including a head scratcher against Charlotte on a neutral court. Now, adding injury to insult, Michigan is without future pro, big man Mitch McGary, who is out indefinitely and awaiting back surgery.
Still, Michigan is no pushover. The Wolverines are still ranked at No. 20 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, and have played really strong offense for most of the year. Michigan is making just over nine three-pointers a game, at a rate of 38.7 percent, and have the 30th best effective field goal percentage in the nation, according to Pomeroy.
Perhaps the teams' similarities -- strong offenses, thin frontcourts, weaker defenses -- make this matchup a little more interesting.
Five things to watch tonight:
1. No Mitch McGary. Does this give the Gophers a chance? Without the 6-10 center, the Wolverines have significantly less depth in the frontcourt, a fact that greatly helps the thinner Minnesota. McGary is replaced by Jordan Morgan, who, averaging the fewest minutes he's averaged since coming to Michigan, is scoring 3.3 points and three rebounds a game. There is still plenty of talent there, and Minnesota's job won't be easy, but McGary's absence should give Elliott Eliason, Mo Walker and the power forwards a fighting chance.
2. The four-guard lineup. How does Pitino like that configuration? He's still not sure. But tonight could be a good time to further test the lineup that has Austin Hollins playing power forward, with Michigan a little undersized at that position as well, with 6-6 Glenn Robinson III manning the four-spot. Considering the (lack of) production the Gophers are getting from their "natural" power forwards, it seems worth exploring.
3. A tale of defenses. Both offenses have been performing pretty well. Both defenses are lagging a bit. If both defenses play about the same, the script would indicate a Michigan win. But if Minnesota can be effective in its press and in its zone, the Gophers could find themselves in good position at the end of the game. One area to watch: as From the Barn pertinently points out, Gophers' opponents are making a stunning 73.7 percent of their shots at the rim (hoop-math.com)
4. Setting the tone. It's not impossible to think the Gophers could get out on a 3-0 start to league play. They certainly need the wins where they can take them, and with plenty of new faces on the team, starting with a win at home could only been beneficial.
5. A big game from the Big Three. Is it fair to call Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu the Big Three? Mathieu certainly isn't at the level the Hollins' are, but he has proven he can affect a game in a bunch of different ways. What remains to be seen is whether the JUCO can continue his bustling pace against tougher competition. One thing is for sure: If Hollins, Hollins and Mathieu are all rolling in unison, the Gophers look pretty good.