JF

Michigan State's off-court basketball drama revolved around a new logo (right).

Golden Gophers vs. Michigan State Spartans

11:00 am (CST) at Williams Arena (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

Radio: WCCO 830 AM

TV: CBS

Tickets: Gone

“As the Barn Turns,” “The Young and the Barnless,” “General Barnspital” (sorry, one too many)… whatever you want to call this season, it has seen more surprises and plot twists than the average soap opera, or so I’ve been told. In today’s non-basketball related news, Royce White is in, sort of, and Al Nolen is out, sort of, for now, possibly. Adding to the drama is the most important home game of the year against The Big Ten’s best team over the last decade. Great timing huh?

Thanks to the Big Ten, who clearly hates bloggers who at times struggle to write interesting previews for even the first conference meeting, the Gophers face Michigan State for the second time in three games. In that last week and a half the Gophers lost at Indiana and their starting point guard. Michigan State nearly lost to Iowa at home and helped a once 4-0 Illinois team regress towards the mean.

The Indiana loss might eventually doom Minnesota’s season as much as the loss of Al Nolen, but one January loss rarely determines the outcome of a season, even for teams perched precariously on the bubble. More important is how a team reacts to and moves on from that bad loss. The Gophers were out-hustled, worked, rebounded and officiated in Bloomington in what amounted to a perfectly timed perfect storm. Mediocre rebounding Indiana secured 48% of offensive rebound opportunities. Rarely aggressive Verdell Jones went to the free throw line 19 times. His previous career high was 13 against Northwestern State in the first game of his career. Add on Indiana’s inability to miss anything, and it just wasn’t meant to be.

The Gophers can look at it as a horrible season killing loss, or can look a little harder at what were quite a few positives. Minnesota didn’t give up when they easily could have. They came back from 15 points down mid-way through the second half and took the Hoosiers to overtime. Minnesota’s half court offense was clicking, really. The Gophers scored 78 points in Bloomington last Sunday, and 8 came off the fast break and 12 were second chance points. At the very least, 58 of their points resulted from running the offense. Ralph Sampson and Devoe Joseph, two players inconsistent and mystifying in their own ways, woke up offensively. Devoe Joseph scored a team high 19 points while shooting 8-14 from the floor, and Ralph Sampson scored 17 points after 15 trips to the free throw line. Al Nolen didn’t play well against and Indiana, and was largely a non-factor, but as Sunday showed, the Gophers offense may have benefited from the change.

The defense, on the other hand, won’t be the same. Tubby Smith will have a difficult decision to make. Al Nolen was a source of constant defensive pressure and the primary defender on the ball handler when the Gophers pressed. That role will now be filled by Devoe Joseph or Lawrence Westbrook. Devoe Joseph isn’t known as a great defender, and struggles to keep up with faster players. Kalin Lucas might be the fastest player in the conference. Lawrence Westbrook has the speed and quickness, and can be a ferocious defender when he wants to be, but no one can predict how interested Westbrook will be in playing defense at any given time. For these reasons it may be more beneficial for the Gophers to play the same tough half court defense that held the Spartans to 60 points on 43% shooting earlier this year. But the press is Minnesota’s defensive identity, particularly at home, and is the major source of offensive opportunities, particularly when the half-court offense bogs down as it so often does.

I’m usually more than ready to offer my opinion, especially about preferred defensive schemes, but I don’t have a clue what the Gophers should do. Neither option is preferable. With the importance of tomorrow’s game, Coach Smith won’t have much patience for defensive lapses. Don’t be surprised to see the Gophers offer token pressure, their typical trapping, man to man, and even zone defenses as the game goes on, and don’t be surprised if all of these are tried more than once. I’m just glad it isn’t my decision. This is why Tubby Smith is a defensive guru and I have a hard time remembering which way the possession arrow is pointing.

With everything that has transpired in the last week, we should know almost immediately how the Gophers handle the adversity. They’ll either come out flat and distracted, or fierce and united. The season is on the line, not because a loss dooms their tournament chances (Michigan State is ranked #6 in the country for crying out loud), but a loss could send the season into a tail spin while a win would be a huge confidence boost for a team that needs some positive news, particularly on the court.

Keys for the Gophers

  • All hands on deck. Against the Spartans not long ago, the bench did nothing. Against Indiana, starters not named Ralph Sampson III might as well have missed the flight. The Gophers will need everyone to show up to have a chance.
  • Get the crowd into the game. The game has been effectively sold out for a week (unless single, non-basket viewable seats count) and Williams Arena faithful will want to scream, shout, and stomp away the season’s frustrations.
  • Senior leadership. Captain Lawrence Westbrook can at times be the best offensive player in the conference. Captain Damian Johnson can at times be the best defensive player in the conference. This will be their last chance to beat Michigan State, and they need to make the most of this final opportunity.

Keys for the Spartans

  • Get off to a fast start. Last year at The Barn, the Spartans jumped out to a 10-2 lead, never looked back, and never heard a peep from the crowd. The Gophers probably have a fragile psyche, and quick start could trigger a melt down.
  • Kalin Lucas needs to re-awaken. The best player on the floor hasn’t shot above 50% from the floor since Michigan State’s conference opening win at Northwestern.
  • Let Draymond do his thing. The sophomore forward is good for at least 5 subtle show stoppers (well time blocks, big rebounds, smart pass) every game. If only he played somewhere on the west coast where I could appreciate him without remorse.

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