Journey to the Tourney: Mich.-Minnesota

Thursday’s matchup between No. 9 Minnesota and No. 5 Michigan at the Barn in Minneapolis will feature two of the best teams in the Big Ten. Both squads, however, are coming off weekend road losses (Minnesota to Indiana, Michigan to Ohio State) that commendable surges in the second half of their respective games failed to turn in their favor. They share a hunger for a win against a member of the league’s elite as they enter the second quarter of the Big Ten season.

Here are five elements that will determine the final result:

  1. Trey Burke's playmaking ability -- The last time the two teams met, Burke dropped 30 points in a 73-69 overtime win over the Gophers in the Big Ten tournament last March. He was unstoppable. This season, he leads a Michigan team that’s first in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. The Wolverines, largely due to Burke, are also second in turnover rate. But in Michigan’s loss at Ohio State, Aaron Craft harassed Burke and disrupted the Wolverines’ entire offense as a result. The Gophers (seventh in steals percentage, 17th in adjusted defensive efficiency) have to mimic that effort. And without a player who possesses Craft’s defensive tools, they’ll need multiple guys to clog Burke’s path to the basket, guard against the kick-out pass when he penetrates and contest his shots. But that’s never an easy task against a player with Burke’s tools.

  2. Trevor Mbakwe's impact -- Last year, the Gophers lost to the Wolverines by five points and four points in two matchups. Mbakwe missed both games due to an ACL injury. In the nonconference portion of the 2012-13 season, Mbakwe didn’t look like an NBA prospect or a former all-Big Ten performer. But he’s resembled the player who led the Big Ten in rebounding in 2010-11 in recent weeks. He’s finished with double-doubles in three of Minnesota’s four Big Ten games. Michigan’s Mitch McGary is still raw. Jordan Morgan is a solid defender, but Mbakwe can overpower both players inside. And that’s what the Gophers will need from the sixth-year senior to get the win. Mbakwe could be the X factor in this matchup if he’s a force inside.

  3. Michigan’s 3-point shooting -- The Wolverines are 12th in the country in 3-point shooting percentage (40.4), one of the reasons they have the most efficient offense in the country. With the 3-ball, they can spread defense. And that’s a problem for opponents because they’re stacked with playmakers, too. Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III will exploit those gaps. The Gophers were down by 23 points at halftime in Saturday’s loss at Indiana in part because the Hoosiers were 7-for-11 from the 3-point line in the first half. That’s why it’s so important for the Gophers to play the perimeter early. And it’s equally important for John Beilein’s squad to hit those shots in the first half to create offensive space that his team didn’t have on Saturday against Ohio State (6-for-20 from 3-point line).

  4. First-half efforts -- Both teams spent the second half of their most recent losses clawing back into the game after halftime. And they were both praised for their efforts. But they were exhausted down the stretch because they’d exerted so much energy cutting into their respective deficits. The Wolverines and Gophers could face similar circumstances if slow starts are an issue on Thursday. Both programs showcased their strength when they nearly closed the gaps in their weekend matchups. But it’s tough to escape those early ditches.

  5. Andre Hollins -- Hollins provided a glimpse of his potential in that Big Ten tournament loss to Michigan last season. The sophomore guard (14.4 ppg, 3.6 apg, 43 percent from 3-point line and 1.4 spg in 2012-13) scored 21 points that day. This year, he’s put up all-Big Ten numbers and matured into a young leader of this Minnesota squad. According to Minnesota’s coaching staff, Hollins marked this matchup a long time ago. He wants to test himself against arguably the best point guard in the country. Burke is Michigan’s solution in tight games. He’s one of the country’s top playmakers. But Hollins will have to play that role for Minnesota on Thursday. This matchup could be decided by star power.