Both coming off critical in-conference losses, the No. 5 Michigan Wolverines and No. 9 Minnesota Golden Gophers will be desperately vying for a victory to keep their regular-season Big Ten championship hopes alive.
Michigan's loss on Sunday night ruined any chances the team had of becoming the No. 1 team in the nation. Expected to compete for a national championship in the preseason, John Beilein's club has done a fantastic job of living up to every expectation thus far. Trey Burke has entered the national player of the year conversation, and the Wolverines' cabal of freshmen has more than lived up to the hype.
As for the Gophers, they're just living the dream and exceeding even the loftiest preseason projections while they're at it. Despite being considered on the fringes of Big Ten competition, Minnesota has ascended inside the Top 10, thanks to a brilliant all-around team effort.
Still, there are many college basketball circles who are just waiting for Minnesota to falter. A win against Michigan would likely end all regression to the mean talk.
With that in mind, let's take a look at everything you need to know about Saturday's Big Ten showdown.
Where: Williams Arena in Minneapolis, Minn.
When: Thursday, Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. ET
Live Stream: Watch ESPN
Michigan Injury Report (via USA Today)
Josh Bartelstein, Ankle, Out
Minnesota Injury Report (via USA Today)
No injuries to report.
What's at Stake?
Though it's still extremely early in conference play, it's become readily apparent that the Big Ten won't be won easily this year. The conference boasts four teams (Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota) inside the top 11 in the country, none of which are sitting in first place.
That distinction goes to currently-unranked Wisconsin, which has consecutive wins over Illinois and Indiana. The Badgers now sit alone atop the Big Ten rankings, leaving those schools inside the Top 25 staring up at a team very few expected to compete for the conference title.
That leaves both teams in a situation where it's necessary to win just to keep up, but this contest is especially important for the Wolverines. Thursday continues a stretch where Michigan plays five of seven games against ranked opponents, four of which come on the road.
With a loss against Ohio State kicking off that arduous road, it's critical that the Wolverines come away victorious simply to avoid talk of a tailspin.
As for Minnesota, there are still many skeptics across the nation. A win for this Gophers team against one of the more talented squads in the nation would pretty much put any talks of an impending downfall to bed.
Michigan Player to Watch: G Trey Burke
With the Wolverines putting up their lowest two-game scoring stretch of the season, it's pretty easy to spot out Burke's dip in play as an overarching cause.
He's scored an average of 16.5 points per game over those contests, but shot only 10-of-29 from the field and dished out a total of seven assists. That latter figure is less than his per game average for the season.
Now is this a regression to the mean or simply a two-game blip on the radar? Obviously most would jump on the former, but Burke's shooting percentage is worth monitoring going forward. He nailed only 43.3 percent of his shots as a freshman, which puts him nearly at a nine percent increase this season.
With Burke being prone to multi-game stretches of bad shooting, it will be absolutely critical that he gets out of this mini funk on Thursday. Smart money is on Burke coming back with a fantastic performance.
According to Ken Pomeroy's advanced metrics, Burke has been tops among players who use 24 percent or more of his team's possessions. And Burke's two-game dip in shooting didn't happen due to anything in particular future defenses can exploit; he simply had bad games.
Minnesota Player to Watch: F Trevor Mbakwe
If there's one noticeably exploitable area for the Wolverines, it's on the glass. They average only 37.9 rebounds per game heading into Thursday night's action, which puts them in a very stellar tie for 73rd in the nation.
As one might expect, that comes from a lack of presence in the middle. Michigan's leading rebounder is Mitch McGary, who averages all of about 15.6 minutes per game this season. In the starting lineup, the Wolverines essentially rely on Glenn Robinson III and a few lucky bounces here and there.
On the other hand, Minnesota ranks inside the top 20 in the nation, thanks mostly to the reemergence of Mbakwe in the middle. The senior forward came into the season "lucky to be on the team" and saw exceedingly sporadic playing time in the early going.
However, Minnesota's ascent into the nation's elite coincides with Mbakwe getting more minutes. He has three double-doubles in the Gophers' last four games and played more than 30 minutes in each of the past two.
Tubby Smith would be remiss if he kept Mbakwe off the floor for any longer than a few fleeting minutes on Thursday. The interior is one of a select few places where Minnesota has a noticeable advantage, and Mbakwe's shot-blocking ability could affect the Wolverines' slashers.
If Mbakwe has a huge game, there's a distinct possibility that Minnesota pulls this contest out. If not, though, there aren't all that many other places where the Gophers have an edge.
Key Matchup: Tim Hardaway Jr. vs. Andre Hollins
Though both guards, Hardaway and Hollins are highly unlikely to guard one another on Thursday unless it's on a switch. Where the two match up, however, is by both being the second-most important player on their respective teams—especially offensively.
Hardaway, who is the only major Wolverines scoring threat among upperclassmen, has provided steadiness all season to his team. There is yet to be a game all season where he's scored fewer than nine points, and he's been unquestionably Burke's second in command.
There's no one alive who would argue that Hollins is second to anyone on the Gophers' roster offensively. Though extremely sporadic this season, Hollins has come up with huge scoring performances in just about every one of Minnesota's difficult games. He's averaged a whopping 24.4 points per game against ranked opponents this season, up a full 10 from his season averages.
It's no secret that Minnesota will have to win this game in the middle, but the team also needs Hollins to markedly outperform Hardaway in order to come away victorious.
Though it's undeniable that Minnesota is one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2012-13 college basketball season, sometimes talent just wins out. That will be the case on Thursday, as Burke responds with a return to greatness and leads the Wolverines to a close, hard-fought victory.
Final Score Prediction: Michigan 78, Minnesota 74
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