Michigan at Gophers
THREE THINGS TO WATCH:
KEEPING BIG LEAD– The Gophers have made a bad habit out of blowing big leads in Big Ten games this season. It might seem like a great feeling for fans at the time when Minnesota is rolling and up double digits. But that high never lasts when the opponent comes storming back. It all started with the Gophers losing to Michigan State in overtime in the Big Ten opener after squandering a 15-point lead. They were up 13 at Purdue before needing to outlast the Boilermakers in overtime. They dropped a game at Penn State after leading by 14 points and to Maryland at home after leading by 12. It was almost dejavu all over again Wednesday against Indiana up nine in the second half in a 75-74 buzzer-beating victory at Williams Arena. Might have to start calling these guys the Cardiac Kids. Too many close games isn’t good for the beat writer’s heart.
DIRK JUNIOR– Meet Michigan’s 6-foot-11 sophomore center Moritz “Moe” Wagner. He is from Germany. And he has deep shooting range like his idol, Dirk Nowitzki. Wagner even got to meet Nowitzki for the first time when the Dallas Mavericks played at the Detroit Pistons this week. In his next game in an upset over Wisconsin, Wagner scored 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting, including 3-for-6 from three-point range. Fellow frontcourt starter D.J. Wilson is just as prolific from three-point range at 6’10” and 240 pounds. Wilson is 38.5 percent from beyond the arc this year (25-for-65). Look for Minnesota’s Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy to be spending most of their time chasing Wagner and Wilson outside the paint Sunday.
BALANCED ATTACK– Richard Pitino praised Nate Mason for his second 30-point game of the season in Wednesday’s win against Indiana, but the Gophers coach also told his team that isn’t the formula for success. Mason was 8-for-19 from the field against the Hoosiers. He was forced to take far too many shots because of the lack of scoring from his teammates. Pitino needs the Gophers offense to be more balanced moving forward, which means Amir Coffey scoring in both halves, Lynch providing more points in the paint, Akeem Springs not starting the game 0-for-10 like he did Wednesday and Dupree McBrayer breaking out of a slump.
Time: 6 p.m. CT, Sunday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Gophers by 1 1/2. Series: Minnesota leads 59-85; Michigan won last meeting 82-74 Feb. 10, 2016 in Minneapolis TV: BTN. Online/Live video: BTN2go Radio: 1500ESPN.
MINNESOTA (19-7, 7-6)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G-Nate Mason 6-2 Jr. 15.1
G-Amir Coffey 6-8 Fr. 12.4
G-Akeem Springs 6-4 Sr. 10.5
F-Jordan Murphy 6-6 So. 10.5
C-Reggie Lynch 6-10 Jr. 8.2
Key reserves– Dupree McBrayer, G, 6-5, So., 10.3 ppg; Eric Curry, F/C, 6-9, Fr., 5.7 ppg; Bakary Konate, C, 6-11, Jr., 1.9 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Fr., 0.9 ppg; Ahmad Gilbert, F, 6-6, So., 1.8 ppg.
Coach: Richard Pitino 88-72 (5th season)
Notable: The Gophers haven’t beaten Michigan since a 69-64 victory Jan. 22, 2011 in Ann Arbor, Mich. That’s nine straight losses in the series. Pitino is 0-5 against the Wolverines, who are the only Big Ten team he hasn’t beaten. Michigan coach John Beilein has won 13 of the last 14 games against Minnesota. The last time the Gophers defeated Michigan at the Barn was in a 69-60 won on Feb. 21, 2008.
MICHIGAN (17-9, 7-6)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G-Derrick Walton Jr. 6-1 14.3
G-Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman 6-4 Jr. 8.5
G-Zak Irvin 6-6 Sr. 12.6
F-D.J. Wilson 6-10 Jr. 10.2
C-Moritz Wagner 6-11 So. 12.2
Key reserves– Duncan Robinson, G/F, 6-8, Sr., 8.5 ppg; Xavier Simpson, G, 6-0, Fr., 1.5 ppg; Mark Donnal, C, 6-9, Sr., 4.6 ppg; Ibi Watson, F, 6-5, Fr., 1.2 ppg; Jon Teske, C, 7-0, Fr., 0.3 ppg.
Coach: John Beilein 499-307 (25th season)
Notable: Some of the best point guard battles in the Big Ten have come between Derrick Walton Jr. and Nate Mason. It should be the same Wednesday night. Walton is averaging 18.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists in his last nine games, which includes six 20-point performances and five in a row. Mason is averaging 19.8 points and 4.0 assists in the last six games, while shooting 32-for-34 from the free-throw line.
Fuller’s prediction (23-3 picks record): Gophers 77, Michigan 74. The Gophers have a chance to win five straight Big Ten regular-season games for the first time officially since the 1977-78 season (also vacated 1996-97 Final Four season). Hard to believe a couple weeks ago when they were just trying to win one game – period after five straight losses. That’s how quickly things can turn around in the Big Ten this season. Michigan and Minnesota are tied for sixth place in the conference at 7-6. But the Wolverines are on the NCAA tournament bubble, while the Gophers are comfortably in at the moment. Things can change quickly with a loss or two, so Pitino’s team has to put itself in Michigan’s shoes. If the Gophers play with a sense of urgency and defend the three-point line, they should pick up a very important win Wednesday night.