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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

Gophers look to regain defensive 'identity' vs. Michigan

In today's Star Tribune: my story on the Gophers' two transfers -- Reggie Lynch and Davonte Fitzgerald -- building their game and their friendship as they sit out.

For two weeks, the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team enjoyed what felt like a rumble of momentum. The Gophers were still losing, yes, but after getting slammed by a total of 50 points in two games, they’d managed to keep it within seven for five straight contests.

Then came Northwestern. The Wildcats boxed Minnesota into a corner for the second time this season on Thursday, walloping the Gophers to the tune of 82-58.

Momentum, lost.

It’s been six days since that game, with Minnesota forced into a bye week right after the massacre before facing Michigan at Williams Arena tonight (8 p.m. CT; BTN).

“It feels like a long break,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “It always stinks when you don’t play well and you’ve got to let that simmer and sit for a while.”

Both Pitino and players said in Tuesday news conferences that they felt offensively Northwestern and its matchup zone was just a bad matchup for them this year (despite that the Gophers often play and practice matchup zone themselves). But as ugly and rushed as Minnesota’s offense was in that lop-sided fight, the bigger problem might have been the defense. After all, the Gophers’ offense has been mostly dreadful all year, but scrappy defense has at times kept them in the ring.

They held the league’s top three three-point percentage teams – Indiana (.422), Michigan State (.422) and Michigan (.403) to 32 percent or worse in four games, and an average of 26.4 percent. The highlight was a Jan. 30 game at Indiana, when the Hoosiers managed just 2 of 18 attempts. The Gophers also held all five opponents from Jan. 16 to Jan. 30 below 46 percent from the field after allowing teams to shoot 50.8 percent or better in five of the previous six games.

Not so at Northwestern, where the Wildcats sank 12 of 27 threes (44.4 percent) and shot 53.7 percent from the field overall.

“We were starting to get an identity,” Pitino said. “We lost that a little bit.”

The Gophers fell behind 13-2 less than four minutes in, and after pulling within six twice, sank to a 14-point deficit by halftime.

Panic, senior Joey King believes, set in then.

“It was a little bit of a lack of maturity,” he said. “We were down by 15 at the half and just kind of struggled to get our minds right …but it doesn’t take away from the fact that in some of these other matchups we’ve been able to step up to the challenge and play really well.”

Boosting the Gophers’ damaged egos is the fact that Minnesota's defense played Michigan tough the last time around, the second game into what looked like some semblance of forward movement. Minnesota used a hot second half in that contest – outshooting Michigan 46.9 to 31 percent and winning the boards 21 to 18 – to keep it competitive at the end before falling 74-69, the Gophers eighth straight loss in the series.

The Wolverines haven’t been playing their best brand of basketball as of late either, especially in back-to-back home losses to Indiana and Michigan State by a total of 29 points. But Michigan could cue a resurgence if Caris LeVert rejoins the pack after missing ten games with what the team is calling a lower leg injury. Multiple reports emerged on Tuesday that LeVert has been cleared to play, and could be a game-time decision.

Regardless, the Gophers know rediscovering some defensive life would be the key to the incredibly elusive victory.

“We played Michigan tough at their place and we played Indiana tough,” King said. “Come back here. Michigan at home, it’s no different. We’re going to chase them off the three I’m sure and do everything we can to slap down on their drives and still close out to shooters.”

TV Listings

Local Schedule

< >
  • Toronto at Timberwolves

    7 pm on FSN, 830-AM

  • Michigan at Gophers men's basketball

    8 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • 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

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