Golden Gophers vs. Michigan State Spartans
8:00 pm (CST) at Williams Arena (Minneapolis, MN)
TV: Big Ten Network
Best tickets left: obstructed seats in the lower level corners
Here at From The Barn we want our words to have meaning, so when we throw out phrases like “Must win game” we actually mean it. People have been dropping that phrase since the opening weeks of the Big Ten season, and I’m not sure exactly why. With 12 or so conference games left, there is so much that can happen to a team, and to other teams that assigning labels to games gets a bit silly. With two weeks left in the regular season, not only is every game important, but for teams with little margin for error, every possession is important. Of the four remaining games left, Tuesday’s bubble buster against Michigan State just might be the most important.
With their 6-8 conference record, the Gophers would be in major trouble in most seasons. This season may have the weakest bubble in the history of college basketball. Not only was the NCAA tournament field expanded to 68 teams. On top of that, mid-majors around the country are tanking faster than a basketball team without its only two reliable ball handlers. Typical mid-major powerhouses like Gonzaga and Butler are in very real danger of missing out on the NCAA tournament. The Missouri Valley has rapidly regressed to a one bid league, and Memphis has rejoined the rest of Conference USA. Those two extra at-large bids and the many doors left open by the generally down state of college basketball means if the Gophers can salvage three wins in their final four games, there is practically no way they will miss out on the NCAA tournament. If one of those wins is against Michigan State, the Gophers could manage to get into the tournament with an 8-10 conference record. No, the Gophers would not deserve to be in the NCAA tournament with a below .500 conference record, but those 68 teams have to come from somewhere. By beating Michigan State, the Gophers would add a 4th top 50 RPI win, something most other bubble teams would not be able to compete with. More important would be the likely confidence boost heading into the final three more winnable games. Obviously, this team desperately needs something to go right to believe that something actually can go right.
Michigan State continues to be an enigma. They are playing much better than they were when they were shelled by 20 at Iowa (you know, the same team the Gophers shelled on the road by around 20). After dropping 5 of 6 games, the Spartan have won two of their last three. Both wins were at home, against Penn State and Illinois. Optimism is growing for a brighter spring in East Lansing after a winter of discontent, but it might be a little too soon to declare the crisis averted.
In their win against Illinois, only one player, super point guard Kalin Lucas, scored in double figures. Lucas had 25. MSU’s second through fifth leading scorers on the season combined for a whopping 30 points. There is no doubting the importance of that win over another team heading perilously close to the bubble, but on a lot of nights against a lot of teams, that lack of scoring output would not have been good enough. MSU has a lot of talent, and their record is not reflective of their ability. But then again, there’s a reason that they haven’t locked up a slot in their 14th straight NCAA tournament.
At the beginning of the season, it was assumed that fatal Spartan flaw was turnovers. MSU could seemingly score at will if they were able to get a shot off, but they couldn’t avoid throwing the ball into the fifth row on every other possession. In conference play, they have improved their turnovers a bit (they still rank 7th in the conference, but have dropped their turnover percentage by two points). Now, offense is the problem. They are the worst shooting team in the Big Ten, ranking 9th in both two point and three point shooting accuracy. While the Gophers can’t complete a cliche from the three point line (broad sides of barns, balls in oceans, etc), they at least are an above average inside shooting team.
Faced with an at times crippled offense, the Spartans have had to rely on defense, and given that their defense also isn’t that great, the mystery surrounding their uncharacteristic record should start to evaporate. The Spartans give up 1.09 points per possession. They have struggled to force turnovers, and no team is worse at defending three point shots. They truly depend on their defense, and when it is there, they generally win. In their 7 conference wins, they give up just shy of .98 points per game. In those losses, they give up a preposterous 1.2 points per possession. If they allowed that many points per possession throughout the season, they would rank dead last in all of college basketball.
There should be plenty of interesting match-ups on both ends of the floor. Both the Spartans and Gophers have a ramshackle, patched together starting line-up after injuries, suspensions, and defections. Kalin Lucas and Draymond Green should be old news to Gopher fans. The two would be in line for all conference honors if their team had been playing better. Durrell Summers, who lit up the Gophers for 14 second half points the last time these teams met, has fallen off the face of the earth, and has not scored in double figures since January. He hasn’t shot above 50% in a single conference game, and was 1-8 with three turnovers in two games last week. Delvon Roe continues to battle his badly damaged knees, but how much he can give each time isn’t known until he can take the court. If he is in, he is a relentless defender and rebounder with a knack for getting some put back baskets. When he is out he leaves a big hole in the middle. More often than not Garrick Sherman tries to fill that hole, but he has only scored in double figures once all season and averages 2.7 rebounds per game. Derrick Nix takes up a lot of space but not much else. Freshman Adreiann Payne looked like he was going to live up to his considerable pre-season hype with 10 points against Ohio State, but he followed it up with only two points against Illinois. Back on the outside, Keith Appling has tried to fill in for the departed Korie Luscious, but his assist to turnover ratio is disappointing, even for a freshman point guard.
The Gophers will have some interesting decisions to make, especially on the defensive end. Do they play zone, and hope that Michigan State’s horrible three shooting continues, even though the Spartans can put four players on the floor that shoot better than 37% from the three point line. Just ask Durrell Summers what can happen if he gets some breathing room. On the other hand, how can the Gophers guard Michigan State and their many more athletic players? The answer comes down to trust, and particularly, does Tubby Smith trust his freshmen? If he doesn’t we will see a lot of zone, and we’ll just have to hope that the Spartans can’t shoot. If he plays all the upperclassmen, Rodney Williams will likely draw Kalin Lucas, leaving Blake Hoffarber to keep up with Durrell Summers, or guard an inside player. If Tubby is trusting, Austin Hollins and Chip Armelin would allow him to play some man to man defense, but then the there would be two freshmen playing a desperate team that started the season as a championship contender in the most important game of the year. And you thought your job was tough?
The season won’t be over if the Gophers lose tomorrow night, but we’ll know how it will likely end. At least spring is coming soon, right?