Golden Gophers 15-5 (3-4) vs. Michigan State 16-4(5-3)

7:30 PM CST at Breslin Center in East Lansing, MI

TV: Big Ten Network Radio: 1500 AM

Welcome to the most important week of the 2011-2012 Golden Gopher basketball season. That I can use the word “important” and that there is even basketball worth watching at this point is in itself remarkable. The Gophers were dead and gone a couple of weeks ago. My wife was using words that no respectable Lutheran would think, let alone use to describe a basketball game. It was bad, it was that bad. Now, somehow, and I still am not sure how, they can draw even in Big Ten play, and could find themselves tied for sixth in the conference standings if they somehow win in East Lansing since the season that never happened.

There are no must win games this week, but it is a must win at least one week. Expecting a win at Michigan State is not an exercise for the rational, but expecting a win against either the Spartans or at home against Illinois should be expected for a team that envisions itself as an NCAA tournament candidate. The season has been saved, at least so far, with the last three wins. A win or two this week will convince some skeptics. If they win twice this week, it might not be a bad idea to start checking out hotels for the tournament. One win this week, and the Gophers live to play another day. With two losses, things get complicated.

I tend to be agnostic in all things, and this season’s Gopher basketball is no exception. It is impossible to know what to expect out of this team. Throw out the first four games of the Big Ten season. Forget it ever happened. That was a different team. There wasn’t a legitimate starting point guard (sorry Maverick), and there was no Joe Coleman. The current starting line-up is undefeated, has two road wins including a blowout and a victory over a top 10 team, and a thrashing of a team that had just knocked off the Spartans. How this new team handles success, especially in a raucous environment like the Breslin Center is unknowable.

When Trevor Mbakwe went down, there was a lot of moaning and groaning about how the Gophers could manage to survive in the allegedly gigantic Big Ten. Allegedly, because the Big Ten isn’t that big. Gone are the days of burly front lines made up of guys who were too tall to play football. In the modern Big Ten, centers are more likely to be skinny, and power forwards are often slashers. Then there is Michigan State, with a front line reminiscent of the good old days. If there is a game that the Gophers will miss Mbakwe, this is it.

Draymond Green gets most of the attention for Michigan State, but he’s nothing to worry about. Yes, he is good, very good in fact. He averages a double-double, is second on the team in assists, has more than a steal and a block every game, and just to be completely unfair shoots nearly 40% beyond the three-point line. He isn’t undefendable though. He isn’t too tall, too fast, too athletic. Sound defense can limit his effectiveness, and the Gophers have in the past.

So let’s assume the Gophers hold Green to 10 points or less, like they have in all but one game in his career. Remember, the Gophers only have one win over Michigan State in the Tubby Smith Era. There is more to the Spartans than Green. Take Derrick Nix for example. He is no longer known for the bad attitude or the even worse free-throw shooting (27% his freshman year). Now he slimmed down, smartened up, and is shooting 58% from the field and 57% from the free-throw line along with four rebounds per game in only 18 minutes per contest. Rodney Williams will be guarding Green. Ralph Sampson III will have to guard Nix or the comparable Adrian Payne. The Spartans are big, but the Gophers can handle that.

But who guards Branden Dawson. He’s built like a power-forward but plays like a small-forward, think Rodney Williams with muscles. He weighs 220 pounds. Joe Coleman is strong enough but too short. Austin Hollins is less too short, but way to skinny.  The three guard line-up has saved the Gophers season, but it could be its undoing against the Spartans.

If Michigan State was just some run of the mill team, I wouldn’t worry about match-ups. The better players usually win regardless of size differential. Ask Missouri about that. But when facing a better team, things like size advantage come into play. The Spartans are a better team with a size advantage.

Their offense is the best in the Big Ten, helped by excellent shooting inside (first) and outside the three-point line (third). They are the best offensive rebounding team in the conference. If you rarely miss, and get the ball back when you do, you’ll win plenty of basketball games regardless of anything else. Michigan State does commit turnovers a little too often, but not to the degree that it is a significant disadvantage. If the Gophers want to have any chance to beat the Spartans, they’ll need to find a way to limit their shot attempts, and that means forcing turnovers, and solid defensive rebounding.

Michigan State has a solid though not spectacular defense, ranking third in the Big Ten. It will, however, be the best the Gophers have faced so far in conference play. They rank third in both two-point and three-point defense. They force few turnovers (eighth in the Big Ten) and are an average defensive rebounding team. The Gophers do have a chance to match the Spartans on the offensive glass.

Expectations have always been complicated for Gopher fans in all sports. We expect the best, occasionally see it for parts of a season, and then reality crashes down on us. Temper them either way after the Michigan State game, win or lose. It is a long season, and as we’ve seen, four straight wins or four straight losses don’t necessarily mean a thing.