Saturday's game against the Wolverines will be Minnesota's eighth Big Ten game in a row against a ranked opponent.Here are four things to watch:
Two of Big Ten's best centers
Overall, there is no debating the Big Ten is the deepest league in college basketball at the center position, much like it also has the most depth with teams capable of going dancing this year.
Going into the U's first game against Michigan on Jan. 6, we looked at Gophers big man Liam Robbins, his impact as a 7-footer and his battles against other elite centers in the Big Ten so far.
Robbins matches up for the second time Saturday against Wolverines 7-1 freshman Hunter Dickinson, who dominated with a career-high 28 points on 12-for-15 shooting and eight rebounds in Minnesota's 82-57 loss in Ann Arbor. Robbins was held to five points on 2-for-9 shooting, four rebounds and three fouls in 23 minutes while limited with a leg injury in the second half.
Dickinson ranks fifth in the Big Ten in scoring (19.7), fifth in rebounding (8.3) and fourth in blocks (1.7) in league games. He leads the conference shooting 70.9% overall. Robbins ranks second on the Gophers in scoring (13.2), first in rebounding (7.2) and leads the Big Ten in blocks (2.6).
This gives us a chance to take a look at the top centers in the Big Ten (five of the top six players were on the preseason watch list for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award … surprisingly not included is a certain Michigan freshman standout). A notable absence on my list below is Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis who is considered a power forward.
Big Ten's center ranking
- Luka Garza, 6-11 senior, Iowa
- Kofi Cockburn, 7-0 sophomore, Illinois
- Hunter Dickinson, 7-1 freshman, Michigan
- Liam Robbins, 7-0 junior, Gophers
- Trevion Williams, 6-10 junior, Purdue
- Micah Potter, 6-10 senior, Wisconsin
- Donta Scott, 6-8 sophomore, Maryland
- E.J. Liddell, 6-7 sophomore, Ohio State
- Joey Hauser, 6-9 junior, Michigan State
- Myles Johnson, 6-11 senior, Rutgers
Honorable mention: Race Thompson, 6-8 senior, Indiana; Zach Edey, 7-4 freshman, Purdue; Cliff Omoruyi, 6-11 freshman, Rutgers; Ryan Young, 6-10 sophomore, Northwestern.
The Gophers just weren't tough enough and didn't match the physicality in their losses at Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa by an average margin of 19.8 points. How can a team become tougher?
Being the tougher and more physical team often means being aggressive, attacking the basket and finishing through contact. Sometimes officials swallow their whistles and let teams play.
In the last meeting vs. Michigan, the Gophers, who average 19.7 free throws made per game, attempted a season-low six free throws. It was the fewest free throws attempted in a Gophers game since Feb. 21, 2015, in a loss at Wisconsin when Pitino's team attempted just one free throw – and missed it. Yes, you read that right.
Toughness can mean hunkering down defensively and making opponents earn their baskets. But Illinois shot 53.1% (34-64) from the field against the Gophers, including 61.3% in the second half. The Illini also scored 48 points in the paint. Wisconsin shot 50.8% (30-59) from the field, including 65% in the second half. The Badgers also scored 40 points in the paint. Michigan shot 56.9 percent (33-58) from the field, including 62.1% in second half. The Wolverines also scored 46 points in the paint. Iowa shot 55.4% in the rematch in Iowa City, including 70% in the second half. The Hawkeyes also scored 34 points in the paint.
How will the Gophers rebound, attack the basket to draw fouls and defend against the Wolverines on Saturday?
The Gophers are worst in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (minus-1.6) overall. They won the battle of the boards for three straight games vs. Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. But that wasn't enough to overcome being dominated on the glass by Illinois (minus-18), Iowa (minus-17), Michigan (minus-9) and at Iowa (minus-6) in their four Big Ten road losses. Robbins leads the Gophers (7.2) in rebounding this season and picked up his first double-double game this season with 27 points and 14 rebounds against the Buckeyes in his last home game. But this isn't like years past when Jordan Murphy (twice) and Daniel Oturu (last season) led the Big Ten in rebounding. They were good for 10-12 rebounds every night. Now it has to be more of a team effort.
The Gophers will need their frontcourt besides Robbins to contribute more on the glass in order to keep Michigan from dominating the battle of the boards Saturday. The Wolverines rank second in the Big Ten in rebounding margin overall (plus-9.7). Dickinson (7.9) and 6-9 sophomore wing Franz Wagner (7.1) both rank among the top 10 rebounders in the league.
The Gophers currently rank No. 1 in the Big Ten, but they dropped from first to third nationally in free throws made per game (19.7) after making only 17 free throws in the last two games combined. This season is still a major upgrade from last year when they ranked 285th nationally with 11.5 foul shots made per game. They're getting to the line nearly twice as often and converting 75.6 percent, ranked third overall in the Big Ten. Getting to the line is obviously a strength for Pitino's team. Getting outshot at the line isn't always detrimental. They were 5-14 when outshot by their opponent on free throws last season. They're 2-2 in the same situation this season. But the Gophers only shot 6-for-6 from the line in Wednesday's loss against the Wolverines, which was obviously too far from their average to make up the difference.
Carr, who shoots 79.8 percent on free throws, is behind only Indiana's Jackson-Davis for the most made free throws per game (5.3 to 6.1) among Big Ten players this season. But Carr was just 2-for-2 on free throws against Michigan on the road. The Gophers shot just 11-for-16 free throws at Iowa last weekend, including starters Carr, Gabe Kalscheur and Brandon Johnson with zero foul shots attempted in the game.
Kalscheur has gotten to the foul line more this season and ranks second in the Big Ten in free throw percentage (90.5).
The Wolverines lead the Big Ten in free throw percentage (78.3) and rank 17th nationally, but they rank just 184th in free throws made (12.8) per contest this season.
Time:1 p.m. CT, Saturday.Where:Williams Arena.Line:Minnesota 5.5-point underdogs.Series:Minnesota trails the series 92-61, including the last meeting a 82-57 loss at Crisler Center on Jan. 6.TV: ESPN2.Online/Live video: WatchESPN.Radio:100.3 KFAN.
NO. 23 MINNESOTA GOPHERS(10-4, 3-4)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Marcus Carr 6-2 195 Jr.20.9
G – Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 200 Jr. 9.8
G – Both Gach 6-6 185 Jr. 10.5
F – Brandon Johnson 6-8 220 Sr. 8.1
C – Liam Robbins 7-0 235 Jr. 13.2
Key reserves– Eric Curry, F-C, 6-9, Sr., 3.6 ppg; Jamal Mashburn Jr., G, 6-2, Fr., 5.1 ppg; Isaiah Ihnen, F, 6-9, So., 2.7 ppg; Tre' Williams, G, 6-5, So., 3.7 ppg.
Coach:Richard Pitino 155-126 (9th season overall)
Notable: Western Michigan graduate transfer Brandon Johnson missed the Dec. 10 win vs. UMKC with a left ankle injury, but he returned the next game in the Big Ten opener at Illinois. Johnson's breakout performance came soon after with a season-high 26 points on 8-for-9 shooting from three-point range in the 102-95 overtime win vs. Iowa on Christmas Day. The Gophers were 17-for-43 from three, setting a team record for attempts from beyond the arc. Johnson's three-point percentage in that game was a team record and he tied the single-game record for threes made. The Chicago native is shooting 39.3% from three this season, but he hasn't been able to come close to duplicating that one record-setting performance from three. He shot 2-for-11 on threes in the seven games before Iowa. Johnson's shot 1-for-10 from long distance in the five games since playing the Hawkeyes. The Gophers shot 27-for-68 (39.7%) from three in back-to-back wins vs. St. Louis and Iowa, but they have shot 84-for-298 (28.2%) the rest of the season so far. Was that last Hawkeyes win an aberration from the three-point line? We'll see moving forward.
NO. 7 MICHIGAN WOLVERINES (11-0, 6-0)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Mike Smith 5-11 185 Sr. 9.2
G – Chaundee Brown 6-5 220 Sr. 9.0
F – Franz Wagner 6-9 220 So. 12.5
F – Isaiah Livers 6-7 230 Sr. 13.8
C – Hunter Dickinson 7-1 255 Fr. 17.5
Key reserves– Brandon Johns, Jr., F, 6-8, Jr., 4.5 ppg; Terrance Williams, F, 6-7, Fr., 2.3 ppg.
Coach: Juwan Howard 30-12 (2nd season)
Notable:The Wolverines will be without starting senior guard Eli Brooks (foot) for Saturday's game against the Gophers, the team announced. Brooks is averaging 8.7 points and 3.6 assists per game. Michigan is the last unbeaten team in the Big Ten and among only two high major teams left with no losses joining No. 2 Baylor. Some analysts said that Howard's team hadn't really been tested early. But the Wolverines became the first Division I team to beat three straight ranked opponents by 19-plus points in their last three games vs. Northwestern, Michigan and Wisconsin. The No. 9 Badgers were down 40 points after a 43-6 run by Michigan in a 23-point loss Tuesday in Ann Arbor. This is the 16th meeting when the Gophers and Wolverines are both ranked, but the first since at the Barn since No. 9 Minnesota lost 83-75 to No. 5 Michigan in 2013.
Fuller's score prediction (Picks record 10-4):Michigan 80, Gophers 71.