Ann Arbor, MI – Off to their best start in the John Beilein ranked Michigan Wolverines try to remain perfect at home as they kick off the new calendar year against Big Ten Conference foe Minnesota at Crisler Arena.
Now 8-0 in their own building, the Wolverines have won six in a row overall since bowing to Virginia (70-58) in the final days of November. On Thursday night, the team kicked off conference play with a crushing 71-53 win over Penn State. Michigan, which has just one other loss on the season (Duke, 82-75), is in the midst of a stretch where they are playing seven of eight games at home, the lone road trip coming up this week at Indiana.
As for the Golden Gophers, they too are off to a strong start this season with 12 wins in 14 opportunities, but the road is long and will seem even longer with one of their top players, Trevor Mbakwe, lost for the year with an ACL injury that was finally operated on earlier this week. Nevertheless, the team has certainly built up some momentum heading into the conference schedule, even with an 81-72 loss to Illinois in double overtime on Tuesday. The defeat snapped a six-game win streak and was the only loss during the month of December for head coach Tubby Smith and his crew.
The Wolverines lead the all-time series between the conference foes by a count of 78-59 and have dominated on their home floor over the years with 49 wins in 69 opportunities, that according to records furnished by Minnesota. Michigan won the most recent matchup last season by a 70-63 score, but it was Minnesota that won the last meeting at Crisler Arena, 69-64.
The Minnesota defense forced 21 turnovers by host Illinois earlier this week, but at the same time the Golden Gophers shot a mere 4-of-14 from three-point range which is one of the reasons why the visitors bowed after 50 minutes of action at Assembly Hall. Ralph Sampson III tried to keep Minnesota close with his 22 points and nine rebounds, both of which paced the visitors, while Julian Welch chipped in 15 points as the only other player in double figures, even as he shot just 4-of-13 from the floor and was the only one on the roster to have missed free throws (5-of-7). Without Mbakwe, a hard-nosed player in the paint who was responsible for 14.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, the only active double-digit scorer for the Gophers is Welch with his 10.3 ppg. Rodney Williams (9.6 ppg) and Sampson (9.4 ppg) always have the potential for strong efforts, but the former limits himself with just 47.8 percent accuracy at the charity stripe.
Tim Hardaway Jr. erupted for 26 points on Thursday night, converting 11-of-18 shots from the floor, all but one of his attempts from inside the three-point line, as the Wolverines crushed Penn State in Ann Arbor. Also scoring in double figures for the hosts as they ended up shooting 47.2 percent from the floor, were Trey Burke with 13 points and Evan Smotrycz with 10 as the former handed out seven assists and the latter pulled down a team-best 10 rebounds. Hardaway brings a lot of energy to the Wolverines and with that comes 16.2 ppg which paces the program, although he could stand to work a bit more on his perimeter shooting which is converting at just a 31.1 percent clip. Burke accounts for another 13.0 ppg and is responsible for more than five assists per game as well, while Smotrycz checks in with 11.5 ppg and is the one doing the dirty work in the paint (6.9 rpg) while also extending defenses with his remarkable 57.1 percent accuracy behind the three-point line.