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Postgame: Defense buried Gophers throughout loss to Michigan

Read my full story on Minnesota's 82-74 loss to Michigan here.

Three quick observations after the Gophers dropped to a program-worst 0-12 start to Big Ten play:

Lots of torture on late deadlines. This is over. I know how this ends. Hey, I'm not rooting against them but for once, this deadline is gonna be a breeze. Oh look, they're back within 9. That's nice. Scrappy. Maybe I'll throw a tweet up. Plenty of time. Back within 6? Dang those shots keep falling huh? Aaaaand it's a two-point game.  [***expletives***]. I've got to rewrite. My deadline in seven minutes and none of these words are relevant anymore. Oh my god, they're finally going to win a game. They're going to win a game and I've got to write about it in seven minutes. They're going to win and I have to flip flop all the stats I've just scratched out and change the tone and ...oh nevermind. And here we are at deadline. Hope our copy editors are on their game tonight. 

-- The mind of a sports reporter on first deadline during an 8 p.m. game.

Free throws! Exclamation points are called for when one factor has so often been a team's demise in late games. Tonight, the Gophers found ways to lose after pulling within 2 with 1:37 but those ways WEREN'T free throws. In fact, Minnesota had its best game of Big Ten play -- by far -- from the stripe (84.2 percent), one of a handful of silver linings that included the facts that the Gophers out-rebounded Michigan 33-28, out-scored the Wolverines 44-26 in the paint and charged back from down 19 to make the game competitive in the final seconds. Of course, as coach Richard Pitino pointed out again tonight, an 0-12 team needs more than silver linings. The Gophers had a big chance to pick up their first victory before facing No. 4 Iowa and No. 2 Maryland in the next two games, and they fell short. As Pitino has said many times lately, it's a "broken record."

Defense, defense, defense. On Tuesday, Pitino said that defense had become the Gophers "identity" during their stretch of improved play before the Northwestern blowout last Thursday. Wednesday against Michigan, it was the Gophers' defense that buried them. Minnesota failed to close out on shooters, adequately communicate and make the right rotations from the start, when Michigan set the tone by hitting nine three-pointers in the first half. But the second wasn't much better. While the Gophers started attacking the basket and getting much more efficient on offense, defensively they still had plenty of holes, allowing Michigan to shoot an even better percentage from the field in the last 20 minutes. At the moment, the Gophers really don't really have an identity -- one aspect they can rely on when times get tough. That deficit can be a problem when the game is tight down the stretch.

Will Minnesota look rejuvenated tonight or stuck after a long layoff?

Minnesota (6-17; 0-11) vs. Michigan (17-7; 7-4) at Williams Arena

Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 8 p.m. CT

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 1500-a.m.

The Spread: Minnesota +7

Pregame reading:

Reggie Lynch and Davonte Fitzgerald, two transfers, sitting out and building their game and their friendship. Click.

Previewing Minnesota and Michigan. Click.

On the blog: The Gophers aiming to rediscover their defensive identity vs. the Wolverines. Click.

Ahmad Gilbert is expected to be back in the rotation on Wednesday. Click.

Three storylines to watch as the Gophers get more desperate for their first win:

Rejuvenated or stuck?

Minnesota has had almost a week off since its last game, a crushing 82-58 defeat at Northwestern on Thursday. Given the rare break, coach Richard Pitino gave his team two days off immediately after and then rolled out what he dubbed a “fun” practice on Sunday before getting down to business on Monday and Tuesday.

“We’re in the dog days of February,” Pitino said Tuesday. “Guys are tired. And especially with the year we’ve had, you’ve got to make sure they have a good time, too.”

The coach said on Sunday, most of practice was 5-on-5 scrimmages, trying to keep things competitive and “letting them play a little bit.” The next two days brought heavy drill work and Michigan preparation.

He pointed out that sometimes a long break can be harmful after a loss – if coaches and players let the memory of mistakes fester – but creating distance and getting rest in a long season can be beneficial too. Which reaction will the Gophers have to the extended layoff? We’ll find out tonight.

The Caris LeVert saga.

The narrative that has wrapped up Michigan media for the last six weeks has been somewhat odd. First of all, it seems like no one is quite sure exactly what kind of injury the senior guard has – with Michigan only referring to it as a “lower leg injury.” Secondly, it’s seemed like LeVert is on the verge of returning for weeks now with coach John Beilein calling his status “close” several times.

Now, the news out of Ann Arbor is that LeVert is pain-free and has been officially cleared ahead of the faceoff with Minnesota tonight. But given that LeVert has missed a lot of basketball and a lot of practice, it’s not a sure thing that we’ll see him grace Williams Arena’s raised floor.

According to Beilein, it’s LeVert’s call and LeVert’s alone.

Even if he were to play, it remains to be seen what kind of shape he’d be in, and whether the star would be able to return to his non-conference form immediately. Still, the presence of LeVert drastically changes this Michigan team. Before his exit, LeVert – still a projected first round pick in this year’s NBA draft -- was leading the team in points (17.6), rebounds (5.4) and assist (5.2) per game. He adds another element to Michigan’s offense and would require more than his fair share of attention from Minnesota’s defense and likely shake up the Gophers game plan.

Last call ‘til Rutgers.

Of course, anything can happen on any given night, even for bad teams like the Gophers. But following Michigan, Minnesota is shoved into back-to-back games against the conference’s top tier – at Iowa and against Maryland at home – before mercifully getting their first battle with lowly Rutgers.

It’s hard to imagine a victory in that stretch, by anything short of a miracle. If the Gophers lost all three, they would be 0-14 in league play heading into that suddenly high-pressure game. In the meantime, the woeful Scarlet Knights have three more winnable matchups against Ohio State, Illinois and Penn State before heading to Minneapolis. RealTimeRPI even predicts a Rutgers win against the Nittany Lions.

A Gophers victory against Michigan would, if nothing else, release  the burden of a winless season before all that.

My prediction: Michigan 72, Minnesota 65

TV Listings

Local Schedule

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  • Nebraska at Gophers women's basketball

    7 pm on 1500-AM

  • Washington at Wild

    7 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Gophers men's hockey at Ohio State

    5:30 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Gophers women's hockey at Minnesota Duluth

    7:07 pm

  • Boston at Wild

    1 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Gophers women's hockey at Minnesota Duluth

    4:07 pm

  • Gophers men's hockey at Ohio State

    6 pm on 1500-AM

  • Gophers men's basketball at Iowa

    6:30 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Iowa at Gophers women's basketball

    7 pm on BTN, 88.5-FM

  • Wild at Vancouver

    9 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Wild at Calgary

    9 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

Poll: Should the Wild fire head coach Mike Yeo?

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