Its a good things that Minnesota and Michigan State each have one of the elite coaches in the country, because both teams are in need of a pep talk.
Tubby Smith will need to tell the Gophers to focus on how close they came to beating the two best teams they have faced this season, while somehow erasing memories of clanking three pointers and free throws. Tom Izzo will need to convince the Spartans that the Breslin Center isn’t a mystical place where the Spartans can do no wrong, and that there talent doesn’t mysteriously disappear when they leave home. Including MSU’s dreadful (not because of who it was against but how it happened) loss at Iowa, the Spartans have lost 11 of their last 12 road games. The Spartans were able to right the ship against anOSU at home, but the newly rejuvenated Williams Arena is like it was when former Spartan coach Judd Heathcoate cursed the very existence of The Barn.
Two weeks ago when the Spartans and the Gophers played, it was much more competitive than many expected. The Gophers were able to deflect several Michigan State runs, and although they did not win, it was a signal to the rest of the Big Ten and the state of Minnesota that this Gopher teams was worth paying attention to. In that game, Raymar Morgan utterly dominated scoring 31 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. The Spartan big men, while not posting gaudy statistics, were able to clog up the lane rendering Spencer Tollackson as useless as his free throw shooting and dominating the boards. Tollackson went 5-14 two weeks ago, and the Gophers were out rebounded by 20.
So what should we expect today? We should know within the first 5 minutes of the game if the Gophers will have a chance. If they use their two recent close losses as motivation to finally get their signature win, the Spartans could be in for a long day. If the Gophers, and particularly The Barn come out flat, things could get ugly.
The Spartans have the obvious talent advantage, and if Raymar Morgan plays have as well as he did against the Gophers in East Lansing and Drew Nietzel shoots twice as well (both should probably be expected or exceeded) the Spartans should win. For the Gophers, the game may rest on the broad shoulders of Spencer Tollackson. Against Michigan State he missed countless lay ups and against the Hoosiers missed all 7 of his free throw attempts. If Tollackson can make half of his shots from the floor and the line, it could be enough to push the Gophers over the edge.
Another key will be the play of Blake Hoffarber. He has excelled against unathletic teams, but disappeared against Indiana and Michigan State. Right now he is one dimensional player, who happens to have the best jump shot in the Big Ten. In the right kind of game, he can be a game changing weapon. However, against athletic teams he has been unable to get open shots and made defensive blunders that reminded everyone that he is only 18. If Blake can get into double figures, which may have more to do with playing good enough defense to stay on the court, the Gophers should be in good shape.
Finally, as has been the case all season, Dan Coleman will need to show up. He played his most obvious game on Thursday against Indiana. In previous games he has either not shown up at all, or put up very good stats but done so so quiety that his impact on the game is only revealed through the box score. Nothing gets the Willams Arena faithful fired up more than a local kid obviously making an impact.
While the Indiana game was an opportunity to make a statement on a national stage, today’s game is an opportunity for the Gophers to make a statement to themselves. For the Gophers to still have a chance to make the tournament, they will need to get over losses quickly and come into the next game with an urgency and confidence to win. No one expects the Gophers to go on long winning streaks during the Big Ten season, but consecutive losses can be devestating.
Today’s game may be the most important of the season.
Prediction: If the Gophers have gotten over Thursday’s loss: 75-70 Minnesota
If the Gophers come out flat: 68-53 Michigan State