Saturday night’s game between Minnesota and Michigan State will inevitably be overshadowed by the coaching match-up between Tubby Smith, coaching his first game in the Big Ten, nd Tom Izzo, coach of the inevitable (but not Hillary Clinton “inevitable”) Big Ten Champions. At least the announcers and graphics guys will have plenty of statistics and bar graphs to show us, because in all likelihood there won’t be much worth watching on the court.

If Michigan State’s recent big wins (Texas and BYU) are at all indicative of how they will play Saturday night, Minnesota is in big trouble. Michigan State received a lot of attention because of their loss to D-II Grand Valley State, but that was nothing but an anomaly, as rare as a virgin birth (Christmas wasn’t that long ago, and its pretty fascinating). If anything, it was the perfect wake up call to start the season, reminding the Spartans that they aren’t invincible and that they do actually have to score more points than their opponents. An overconfident, invincible-feeling team may be the Gophers only hope. In nearly every match-up, from the leading scorers down to the student managers, the Spartans have the advantage, except of course the battle of the hair. Ryan Saunders wins again.

The Gophers only real hope is to slow the game down, and keep the Spartans in the 60s. When the Spartans are in the 60s, they only outscore their opponents by 2.3 ppg. Doing this is much easier said than done. The Gophers have had their best defensive games (in terms of points allowed) when they force a lot of turnovers. Unfortunately, most of these turnovers occur when the Gophers press incessantly, which tends to speed the game up. Both UNLV and Florida State, two much faster and more athletic teams than the Gophers, were able to break the press and get easy baskets. Even South Dakota State and Colorado State scored easily against the press once they learned not to inbound the ball to the corner or pick up the dribble before crossing center court. Minnesota will need to press at some point, but needs to pick their spots, mix it up, and not be afraid to abandon the press if it isn’t working. At the very least, the Gophers should try to play tough half-court defense the first several minutes of the game, and see how far that has gotten them.

But I still think the Gophers can win, I don’t think they will, but its possible.

  • If the Gophers press at seemingly random times and shorten the shot clock, it may be enough to keep Michigan State off balance and the scoring low.
  • Damian Johnson has the potential to neutralize Raymar Morgan. He won’t score as much as Morgan, but his scoring in addition to forcing turnovers may match Morgan’s contributions.
  • Al Nolen could frustrate Neitzel, but will need to play the game of his life on both ends of the floor for the Gophers to have a chance.
  • Blake Hoffarber, if he gets hot, could keep the Gophers in the game. Just ask Indiana about the impact a hot shooter can have.

I think one or two of the above might happen, but six three pointers in the last minute and a half of the game probably won’t be enough. I predict that the Gophers will lose 80-65. Anything from a 15-20 point loss is nothing to worry about. If the Gophers win (miraculously) or lose by less than ten, it will show they have learned a lot from their previous losses. Anything worse than a 20 point loss should be cause for concern.

And because I still haven’t gotten around to my MSU Big Ten Preview, here you go:

What we know:

With their win over Texas, Michigan State jumped from a probable champion of a mediocre conference to a legitimate national title contender. Their lone loss came against then #1 UCLA by five points. They should roll through the Big Ten schedule when they aren’t playing Indiana or Wisconsin, and they are capable of beating these teams as well. We may be hearing a lot about this experienced, well-coached team in April.

Who to watch:

  • Raymar Morgan has exploded, and would be well on his way to winning conference player of the year if there wasn’t a certain freshman superstar playing in Bloomington, Indiana. He has improved all facets of his game, and not by small margins either: going from 11.7 points to 17.4, 5.2 rebs to 7.1, and 49% shooting to 59% shooting. He still struggles with turnovers (2.5 per game), but even that is just nitpicking.
  • Drew Neitzel was on everyone’s pre-season All-America team. His scoring is down (even though he has improved his shooting percentage), but so are his turnovers. He has improved his assist to turnover ratio to 4.29 to 1, which more than makes up for the relative lack of scoring. A team-oriented Neitzel has made everyone better. Now if only he could grow some hair.

How they’ll do:

Wins: Minnesota, Purdue, at Iowa, Ohio State, at Minnesota, at Northwestern, Michigan, Illinois, at Penn State, Northwestern, at Purdue at Indiana, Penn State, Iowa, Indiana, at Illinois

Losses: at Wisconsin, Ohio State

Record: 16-2 (28-3 overall) with a #1 seed.

What we don’t know:

Do the Spartans have long memories, or will they get complacent and run into trouble against a lower tier Big Ten team?

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