Four weeks ago, Michigan and Minnesota squared off at Crisler Center. Michigan led 57-47 with four minutes to play, looking to cruise comfortably to a win after suffering its first loss at Wisconsin three days prior. The Gophers went on a 10-0 run to tie the game with seconds left, then Charles Matthews hit the game-winner as time expired, Michigan won 59-57.
In the month since, the Wolverines haven’t played in too many close games, with only two of Michigan’s seven conference tilts coming down to single digit results when the final buzzer sounded: a 61-52 win over Wisconsin and a 75-69 loss at Penn State. For some fans, Thursday is just an appetizer to No. 7 Michigan’s date with arch rival No. 10 Michigan State on Sunday. That is not the case inside the walls of Crisler over the past week, as Michigan (23-3, 12-3 Big Ten) readies for a rematch with Minnesota (17-9, 7-8 B1G)
“We’ve used the last three days to get some rest, but also retool and get ready for the Gophers,” John Beilein said to assembled media on Wednesday. “They got seniors; they got juniors, they got grad transfers. They are an older team than we are and hence the older, the more physical.”
Michigan has had plenty of physical matchups to prepare themselves for what the Gophers bring to the table. A three-game run of playing Wisconsin, Penn State and Maryland has readied the Wolverines for what the Gophers bring as a team, and more specifically, what dynamic forward Jordan Murphy (team-high 15 in Minnesota’s January loss in Ann Arbor) can do on the floor.
“He gets to the foul line at least ten times a game. Michigan, we don’t like to put players on the foul line, so we got to limit that as much as possible” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers.
“All those bigs (that we have played) are physical; it’s not like they are gonna cross you over or go under you. They are gonna try to go through you or over you, it’s either get to the free throw line or get to the basket,” he continued. “I think we’ve done a great job, it started with Iowa, we didn’t do a great job with the bigs, but that second time against Wisconsin, I think we did a lot better job guarding bigs because we did a lot more practice guarding the post.”
Beilein continued with praise for Murphy, who is averaging 15 points and nearly 12 rebounds per game this season.
“We’re gonna have to be physical with them. Murphy and all those guys will put us in the basket,” said Beilein. “we gotta make sure we guard our yard but at the same time, do not let them get too close to the basket because two things happen then Murphy even on a miss if he’s close to the basket he’s gonna get a rebound, he’s so quick, he is really a rare athlete.”
Beilein cited the lessons learned in the loss to Penn State and slowing down forward Lamar Stevens as something Michigan has focused on in preparing for Murphy and Minnesota’s other big man, Daniel Otoru.
“What was our lack of success against Stevens and Penn State and how that turns you around that there is a physical element of guarding in the post that you just can’t keep backing down. I thought we did a great job of that with the big guys from Maryland, and now we gotta do it again.”
As Michigan heads back on the road, where the Wolverines are 4-3 in Big Ten play this season, Beilein has to prepare his relatively young team for an environment they have never played in before. Michigan’s last trip to Williams Arena was in 2017 when Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske were bench players as freshmen, and Charles Matthews did not travel while he sat out the season due to his transfer. Livers is looking forward to finally playing in his 14th Big Ten venue as his sophomore season winds down.
“So excited about Minnesota, that is the only place I haven’t been to yet,” said the Kalamazoo native. “I remember I was watching my senior year, D.J (Wilson) hit a big three to go to overtime at the top of the key, and that was the last thing I remember about Minnesota.”
The Gophers home court, nicknamed “The Barn” features something its Big Ten brethren do not, a raised court. Beilein said adjusting to that feature is less challenging than it was early in his Michigan career.
“The floor is not as raised as it used to be, we used to have the manager fall off the end. We don’t do that anymore,” joked Beilein about how he had to prepare past players for playing in Minneapolis. “It’s not as different than it used to be, they have to experience it for the first time, most of our team has not been there, just Jon and Zavier have.”
When it comes to the Wolverines conference double-plays this year, Michigan has fared well. So far, Michigan swept Indiana and Northwestern, split with Wisconsin and Penn State, is guaranteed no worse than a split with Maryland, and still has two games with Michigan State. Beilein was asked if there was anything he would take away from game number one and utilize in the rematch.
“We are always changing and trying to stay ahead of things, just because a play worked last game doesn’t mean we are gonna run it,” said the coach. “We know that team has been practicing it all week so I will go both ways to go with where we were successful and at the same time saying we are holding that back until we counter it.”
No. 7 Michigan and Minnesota square off at Williams Arena in Minneapolis at 7 PM ET Thursday. The game can be seen on ESPN. Jason Bennetti and Robbie Hummel will be on the call. Be sure to follow @WolverineLounge and @ByJaySarkar on Twitter for in-game updates and more.