Michigan’s victory at Minnesota clarifies where both stand in Big Ten pecking order

If back-to-back games against Big Ten favorites Indiana and Michigan were a mid-January barometer for whether Minnesota can win the league title, then Gophers fans aren't going to like the answer.

Minnesota is good – heck, maybe even top 15 good – but the best Gophers team of Tubby Smith's tenure still doesn't appear to be quite formidable enough to challenge for first place in the strongest Big Ten in recent memory.

Last Saturday, Minnesota fell behind by 23 points at Indiana at halftime before a too-little, too-late second-half rally made the final score a respectable 88-81. Then Thursday night, the Gophers followed a similar pattern at home against Michigan, letting the Wolverines race out to a 19-point early second-half lead, clawing back to within six in the closing seconds and falling 83-75.

The Michigan game turned at the start of the second half when the Wolverines unleashed their high-powered offense and broke open a close game. A 20-7 run fueled by the creativity of Trey Burke and a slew of transition buckets extended Minnesota's deficit to 19 and effectively put the game out of reach.

Burke, a national player of the year contender, had his usual solid night, fighting through a 5 of 15 shooting performance to still score 18 points and dish out nine assists. Fellow guard Tim Hardaway Jr. got the Wolverines off to a good start, scoring 17 of his 21 points in the first half and only missing one shot the whole night.

Torrid shooting from Austin Hollins (21 points, 4 of 7 from behind the arc) kept Minnesota competitive, as did the Gophers usual advantage on the offensive glass. Nonetheless, they fall to 3-2 in Big Ten play with back-to-back road games at Northwestern and suddenly surging Wisconsin up next.

Michigan improves to 4-1 in the Big Ten, just a half game behind the first-place Badgers. The Wolverines responded exactly the way they needed to after Ohio State stymied their high-octane offense Sunday night and handed them their first loss of the season.

Whichever Big Ten power wins the league title this year will probably be the team most able to win on the road.

Michigan let a win slip away against the Buckeyes on Sunday. On Thursday night, the Wolverines didn't make the same mistake twice.

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