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January 2, 2014
Hoops: Challenge, opportunity in opening at Minnesota
On paper, Minnesota looks like a great matchup for Michigan. It's hard to find anyone who should be able to check the Wolverines' wings, the Gophers like to play zone (which should play into the shooters' hands) and U-M has owned Minnesota recently.
Now, though, the Gophers have a new leader in Richard Pitino, a young up-and-comer in the profession. The Gophers also have plenty of backcourt experience in senior Austin Hollins and junior Andre Hollins.
Junior DeAndre Mathieu, a transfer from Central Arizona, is quick with good instinct and can score.
"I'm not even still sure where he came from, but he is a heck of a player," head coach John Beilein said. "He is the lead guard that everybody needs to be successful. He makes both Hollinses better. He just seems to be in control running the team, and it's really been helpful for them."
Minnesota leads the Big Ten in steals per game (8.8) and is second in turnover margin (plus-3.8), but as has been the case in past seasons, they haven't really beaten anybody in the non-conference despite a gaudy (11-2) record. They Gophers have beaten Florida State, a team Michigan struggled with, but lost to Arkansas and Syracuse.
Still, Michigan will undoubtedly get their best. Minnesota has struggled with the Wolverines over the past few years, going 0-4 in the last two years, and they'll want to make a statement at home as a 2.5-point favorite. U-M, though, will have an opportunity to start strong out of the gate with a critical, Big Ten road win.
They see to know what's at stake.
"The last two days of practice have been intense by everybody, by the coaches, by the players, knowing," Beilein said. "Anybody who watched any of those four [conference] games yesterday would see the intensity and I'm sure our guys watched - you see that there's another gear that everyone was in.
"Now you know the opponent better than you knew any of those teams, so there's certainly a renewed interest in playing hard and now you have to play hard, or you won't survive."
Northwestern, Nebraska (road) and Penn State follow, giving U-M a chance for a strong start.
"You have to win some road games and you have to win almost all of yours at home, if not all of them," Beilein said. "I don't look at some and say, 'we're not opening up with the third, fourth, fifth-ranked teams in the country.' I don't look at it like that at all. I look at it as you've got to find ways to win on the road.
"This is the first of nine opportunities to get one of these road wins. As long as you win at home, four to six on the road puts you in championship levels."
On paper, the match-up favors Michigan. Who checks Glenn Robinson III, for example, when the Gophers play small like they often do? Robinson has been playing outstanding, motivated basketball.
"There are things we can do offensively that are very tough to go against playing four guards, but then defensively, certainly rebounding is an issue," Pitino said. "So I'm not sure yet, that remains to be seen."
Beilein expects multiple defensive looks and a number of triples from the revamped Gophers.
"They shoot as many threes as we do," Beilein said. "[Minnesota has] great guard play, and that's really key for the way he is playing. I never coached against him personally, so we begin that process of scouting what he likes to do and what his staff likes to do."
Michigan plans to start freshman Derrick Walton Jr. at the point with fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan at the five. Walton could be the X factor when it comes to competing for a Big Ten title.
"That seems to be what's been successful for us so far. We get good spark off the bench from both Spike and Zak Irvin," Beilein said. "Jon Horford likes that role - it doesn't bother him one bit. Jordan has been a starter for a long time, so it's good for Jon to maybe watch the game for a second and it might keep him out of foul trouble."