#21 Golden Gophers vs. #10 Michigan State Spartans
11:00 am (CST) at Williams Arena
Radio: WCCO 830 AM
Tv: Big Ten Network
Tickets: A few obstructed seats scattered around
Chatroom: Yes. With so many folks working or unable to see the game, help out your fellow Gopher fans and keep them updated if you can.
It has been at least ten years since a ranked Gopher team has played a ranked opponent at home, and it will happen twice this week, on New Year’s Eve against Michigan State and again this Saturday against Ohio State. With two wins, the Gophers would catapult into the top ten and be the favorites to win the conference championship. Two losses would end the hype, at least until an upset road win if it ever came, and would put the Gophers at risk of another trip to the NIT. A win in either game would at the very least legitimize Minnesota’s earlier win over Louisville, and signal to the rest of the conference that there will be no guarantees at the The Barn. It is the most important week since the magical season that never happened.
Tomorrow’s game is much more than a barometer by which to judge the Gophers’ progress. It is a program building and potentially program changing contest. Michigan State has been the Big Ten standard bearer since Mateen Cleeves and the Flintstones won an NCAA championship. While the Spartans are not one of Minnesota’s traditional rivals, in terms of prestige, a Minnesota victory would be most meaningful. A win would also go a long way towards showing that Minnesota beat Louisville, and muting the naysayers (including myself) not because Louisville but because the Gophers are just that good.
The Spartans come into Wednesday’s game playing their best basketball of the season. Playing a brutal non-conference schedule, which is the norm under coach Tom Izzo, come into the game with a 9-2 season with blow out losses to Maryland and North Carolina. The North Carolina loss isn’t surprising. On any given night they could beat any given team in the country by fifty (slight exaggeration, but oh so slight). The Maryland loss can’t be considered bad either, considering that the Terrapins have only lost to Gonzaga and Georgetown and have beaten Michigan. Since the North Carolina loss, the Spartans have rattled off five straight losses including a quasi-road win over Texas in Houston. Louisville was still a bit of a mystery when they lost to the Gophers. Michigan State is an excellent team, and although they haven’t always played up to their potential, no one is questioning their ability to win the Big Ten.
Michigan, like Louisville, plays a much faster brand of basketball than the Gophers are used to, and average about four more possessions per game than Minnesota. Despite their more rapid pace of play, the Spartans have remarkably similar offensive statistics. The Spartans average 112.4 points per 100 possession, the Gophers average 112.6. The Spartans make 38.8% of their three pointers and 52.4% of their two pointers. Minnesota makes 37.9% and 54.5% again. The Spartans commit turnovers on 20.1% of their possession, the Gophers 20.5%. The Spartans are a bit worse at shooting free throws, but will cancel out the difference by getting to the line more often, and both offenses should cancel each other out.
On defense, the Gophers have an advantage, but if they had given 98 points to North Carolina instead of Michigan State, the Spartans would look much better. Michigan State’s opponents have made 35.3% of their three pointers, compared to 31.5% by Gopher opponents. The Spartans give up 45.1% shooting from inside the three point line, compared to 43.5% by the Gophers. The Gophers biggest advantage on defense is in steals and blocked shots, where Minnesota ranks #12 and #2 in the country, and Michigan State is very average.
Rebounding looks to be Minnesota’s biggest problem area. The Spartans are prolific at collecting and preventing their opponents from collecting offensive rebounds. The Gophers have had their moments, but barely out rebounded one of the worst teams in the country just two days ago. Meanwhile, the Spartans rebound 39.1% of their missed shots, something that at this point the Gophers can only aspire to.
Minnesota and Michigan State could not be a more even and potentially exciting match-up to begin the Big Ten season, at least on paper. The team that executes will win. Neither team is good enough to make many mistakes and still expect to win.
Keys for the Gophers
- Stay focused and under control. Minnesota’s victory over Louisville was in a much-hyped game, but took place in the most laid back environment they will play in this year. The crowd will be wild. The defense will be intense. The Gophers will at some point during Wednesday’s game face adversity that they have not faced, especially considering that five players have never played a Big Ten game before. How they handle these new circumstance will determine if they win.
- Keep Michigan State off the offensive boards. It is broken record time, but the Gophers defense won’t matter if Michigan State has innumerably more possessions.
- Make free throws. It should be a close game. Minnesota has been horribly inconsistent from the line, making as few as 53.8% and as many as 87.5% of their free throws. Leaving points on the line will lead to a loss.
Keys for the Spartans
- Keep the crowd out of the game. Last year Williams Area was ready to explode, but never got the chance, even though the Gophers were within two possessions for the vast majority of the game. A quiet crowd would be a huge advantage for Michigan State, and could be crippling for the Gophers who have fed off the frenzied energy inside the barn.
- Get Minnesota’s interior players in foul trouble. If either Ralph Sampson II or Colton Iverson misses significant time due to fouls, a still rusty Paul Carter and still horrible Jonathan Williams need to carry the extra load for the Gophers.
- Take care of the ball. Although Minnesota’s half-court offense is much improved, it is still best in transition and off of turnovers. The more the Gophers have to work to score, the better for the Spartans.
Key Players for the Gophers
- Al Nolen will need to play well on both ends of the court, and score a few points too. The Spartans have more offensive fire power than the Gophers, and Minnesota can not afford to not have Nolen score at least ten points.
- Colton Iverson will need to be a rebounding force.
- Damian Johnson needs to find a way to stop Raymar Morgan. He did last year.
Key Players for the Spartans
- Kalin Lucas is one of the best point guards in the country, can score, and has an assist to turnover ratio approaching 6.5-1.
- Goran Suton has been a huge spark since returning from an injury, averaging 8.5 points and 4.7 rebounds. In his last two games, his averages have ballooned to 17 and 6.5.
- Raymar Morgan might have Dan Coleman syndrome. The talent and size is there, but Morgan can disappear at times. He has scored more than 20 points five times, and in single digits five times. Which Raymar Morgan will show up?
Admittedly, I have no idea what to expect tomorrow. The Gophers are much better than expected, but if the Spartans play like they did against Texas, it won’t matter how the Gophers play. This is a Gopher Blog though, so why not go for the good guys.
Prediction: Minnesota 68 Spartans 62.
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