Golden Gophers vs. Michigan State Spartans
3:00 pm (CST) at Breslin Center (East Lansing, MI)
Pop quiz time!
Question #1: How many wins over teams better than the Gophers does Michigan State have this season? If you answered zero, you receive full credit. If you answered one, Washington, we will generously give you half credit, though the Huskies now have three losses.
Question #2: How many of Michigan State’s losses are to teams worse than the Gophers? We will only award full credit for zero. No partial credit this time even if you managed to explain your answer in 1,400 words (sorry, that only works for bloggers). The Spartans have four losses to four ranked teams. They lost to UCONN, who while overrated at #4 in the country, should still fall somewhere in the top 20. They lost at Duke, who may not lose a home game this year. They lost at Syracuse in what seemed like a post-Duke hangover. Finally, they were shelled at home by Texas, one of the most talented team’s in the country held back only by their inability to reach their full potential.
So who are the Spartans? A four loss team in something of a free fall, or a team just waiting to race up the rankings on the way to the final, as they always seem to do?
This is hardly the first time that the Spartans have looked pedestrian in the non-conference season. Since 2001, Michigan State has had two or more non-conference losses in all but one season, and in every one of those seasons made the NCAA tournament. In the one year that they had only one non-conference loss, they “only” made it to the Sweet 16, saving their bizarre lapses in basketball ability for the Big Ten season, including a 43-36 loss at awful Iowa, losing at post-seasonless Penn State, and losing to struggling Ohio State. Early season success hardly correlates to to post-season triumphs for the Spartans, and I am hardly sold on the demise of Michigan State, but something seems wrong.
Whether it is the off court chaos catching up to them (Chris Allen was kicked off the team, Korie Lucious was caught driving drunk, sexual assault accusations were leveled at unnamed players, Tom Izzo was even suspended for an NCAA violation), Kalin Lucas’ injury, a better Big Ten, or some sort of post-final four hangover, these are not the same Spartans.
Now don’t get me wrong, the talent is still there. Kalin Lucas, even if he has lost a step, is still lightning quick and is having his best scoring and shooting season of his career. Durrell Summers can still jump out of the gym, and leads the team in scoring at 15.2 points per game. Draymond Green is still the smartest player in the conference (or the country even) and is nearly averaging a double-double along with 4 assists, 2 steals, and block in every game. Korie Lucious has upped his assist total. Highly touted freshman Keith Appling and Adrein Payne have played well in spot minutes. Even Delvon Roe has managed to stay healthy, and has played as much as you would expect, except when he finds himself in foul trouble.
At first glance, these are the same old Spartans. They like to run, and rank second in the Big Ten in possessions per game. They are a good defensive team, ranking 14th in the country and holding opponents to 41.1% shooting inside the three-point line. They’re even a good three-point shooting team, which is astounding since Chris Allen was their best pure shooter last season.
All is not well though. While they like to run, they were practically run off the court against Texas, and the speed at which they play may be too speedy. They continue to be plagued by turnovers of the unforced variety, and rank 269th in the country in taking care of the ball. Some will say the Gophers have a turnover problem too, but they rank 128th in this category. The strangest missing piece of the Spartan puzzle is their inability to rebound, especially on the offensive end. No, they aren’t bad, ranking 54th in the country. However, in the last 4 years they have ranked 10th, 6th, 8th, and 7th. Those teams had turnover problems too, but all those offensive rebounds more than made up for the wasted possessions.
Michigan State is a mystery, and so are the Gophers, which should make for a very entertaining game. The Gophers haven’t managed to beat Michigan State in East Lansing in a game that counted since 1990, but they did finally beat Michigan State last season in the Big Ten tournament, on a neutral court no less. In an over-time classic, the Gophers made just enough three-pointers to hold off the Spartans. They’ll need to shoot well and more to get their first Big Ten win of the season as they close out one of the more turbulent years in team history.
Who to watch for the Gophers:
Devoe Joseph had one of the least efficient, most spectacular games I have ever seen as he almost single-handedly dragged the Gophers to victory against Michigan State last year. He led the team with 17 points, made 3-6 three-pointers, made 6-6- free-throws, many with the game on the line, and somehow managed to make only 1-8 two point shots. The Gophers will need his points, hopefully in a more efficient manner, but they will also need his defense against the Spartans. He’ll likely match-up with Durrell Summers, and will need to keep an eye on him around the three-point line.
What to watch for the Gophers:
How does the team react to the Wisconsin game? I mentioned earlier this week that how the team plays is going to be more important than how many games they win early in the season. There is a very real possibility that they will start the season 1-3 or even 1-4 because of the tough schedule, and still have a chance to be a major player in the conference season late in the year. However, they will need to keep their heads up and not give up on the season after likely losses to some of the best teams in the conference on the road. They’ll need to stay focused, and play smart and aggressive basketball in front of the Izzone. If they are distracted or don’t seem to care, well, do you remember this?
Who to watch for Spartans:
It isn’t every day that you find a basketball player that looks like a slightly overweight middle-aged guy who happens to be the best player on his team. You’ll end up hating Draymond Green, but only because you’ll wish he was a Gopher. He doesn’t do it with his body. He does it with his mind. Against the Gophers his body might get in the way. He is undersized in the height department (he might be 6’6”) and will have his hands full with Trevor Mbakwe, who is taller, weighs just as much, and can jump out of the gym.
What to watch for the Spartans:
Michigan State has struggled with turnovers all season, giving the ball away on 23% of their possessions. However, their losses are due in part to an inability to force turnovers. Their four losses also happen to be the only four games where they forced a turnover on 20.2% or less of their opponents possessions.