#19 Golden Gophers vs. #13 Michigan State Spartans
7:30 pm (CST) at The Breslin Center (East Lansing, Michigan)
Radio: WCCO 830 AM
TV: Big Ten Network
Liveblog: Starting half an hour before the game.
How about that for a pleasantly unexpected headline? After Purdue’s loss at Ohio State and Michigan State’s latest slips against formerly cellar dwelling Penn State and Northwestern, a Minnesota win on Thursday against the favored Spartans would result in both teams having identical 7-3 records in the Big Ten.
One month into the Big Ten season, the Gophers and Spartans are right where they were on a very cold New Year’s Eve morning in Minneapolis to open the season, the Gophers playing the part of the young up-starts still looking to be taken seriously and Michigan State as the consensus best team in the league. Minnesota has legitimized themselves in the last month, not quite to the point of being considered a Big Ten title contender, but they are recognized as one of the better teams in the league. Michigan State, despite those two losses, both at home, is still the favorite to win the conference championship.
They are more vulnerable now, and certainly not the team that looked like it could cruise all the way to the Final Four. Raymar Morgan is out with an upper respiratory infection. Goran Suton tweaked his knee in practice yesterday. Not even perennial bench warmer Isaiah Dahlman has escaped injury. If Minnesota is going to end its 12 year long losing streak at Michigan State, this just might be the year. The Gophers are on a streak snapping streak after all, just ask Wisconsin and Illinois. Tubby Smith has had a week to prepare his team for Thursday’s game, and it should be a good one, or at the very least competitive.
Michigan State, even with their injury issues, is still the same team that ran the Gophers off the court in December. They continue to be the best offensive team in the Big Ten by virtue of their speed and offensive rebounding, scoring 1.16 points per possession. When they miss, and they often do, they get offensive rebounds an astounding 42% of the time, fifth best in the country. The Spartans actually shoot worse than the Gophers inside the three point line (50.2% vs 51.4%) and only slightly better behind the three point line (37% vs 35.8) though Minnesota’s outside shooting numbers have been much worse lately. The Spartans turn the ball over an average amount. They get to the free throw line more than most teams but struggle there, making only 67% of their free throw attempts.
Michigan State’s defense is about as good as Minnesota’s, although the Spartans tend to give up more points because of the faster paced game. They force few turnovers, and rely on excellent rebounding to keep second chances to a minimum. They are equally susceptible from the inside and outside, so the Gophers should have plenty of chances to score.
Keys for the Gophers
1. Get back on defense. Michigan State loves to push the ball up the court, especially after made baskets. The Gophers don’t necessarily need to avoid pressing, they just need to have the press set up immediately to avoid being run off the court.
2. Rebound. Michigan State is the best rebounding team in the conference, and the fifth best rebounding team in the country. The Gophers…are not. In January the Spartans nearly doubled Minnesota’s rebounding total and won easily despite a nearly identical shooting percentage. Minnesota’s defense can keep the Spartans from scoring easily on the first shot, but no defense in America can consistently shut down opponents who take third and fourth shot.
3. Don’t chase blocked shots. Against Illinois the Gophers finally seemed to figure out that a defensive rebound is just as good as a blocked shot. Michigan State is not a great shooting team, and there is no need to sacrifice rebounding position to stop them from scoring.
Keys for the Spartans
1. Shut down the super scorer. In their two Big Ten losses, the Spartans have been blitzed by their opponents most prolific scorer. Talor Battle had 29 and Kevin Coble scored 31. If the Spartans had been able to contain the players they knew they had to stop the would still be undefeated in conference play.
2. Rebound. If the Gophers play their typical defensive game, and Michigan State shoots how they normally do, the Gophers will be in it until the very end, unless they take an extra ten shot attempts.
3. Jump out early. Except for the Northwestern game, and the Wildcats are so gimmicky that no lessons will be drawn from them, Minnesota has played better as the game has gone on. Iowa, Wisconsin, and Indiana learned that letting the Gophers hang around is a recipe for disaster. An early lead with few electrying plays will fire up The Izzone, and could turn the lights out on the Gophers.
Key Players for the Gophers
1. Al Nolen will need to contain Kalin Lucas, and stay on the court and in control.
2. Ralph Sampson will need establish himself on both ends of the court and keep Goran Suton off the boards.
3. Damian Johnson has only once been a factor in a game against Michigan State, and not coincidentally, it was the closest the Gophers have come to beating the Spartans. With Raymar Morgan out or at the very least slightly incapacitated, Johnson should have an easier time on both ends of the court.
Key Players for the Spartans
1. Kalin Lucas almost single-handedly beat the Gophers earlier in the season with his blinding speed.
2. Travis Walton is Michigan State’s best defender, and it will be his job to guard Lawrence Westbrook, Minnesota’s best bet for a big scorer.
3. Durrel Summers’s minutes are up since Raymar Morgan has been out. He played great against Ohio State and Iowa, and the Spartans rolled. He played poorly against Penn State, and they lost. It isn’t fair to pin a loss on one player, but with Morgan out, the Spartans are counting on a big game from the sophomore guard.
Prediction: The Gophers have played some of their best basketball away from home this season, and I expect that trend to continue. However, Tom Izzo won’t let his team forget they have not lost three consecutive home games in a very long time. Michigan State’s superior talent and desire to protect their home court will be enough to win, but just barely. Michigan State 73 – Minnesota 72.
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