While the nation balances precariously on the edge of the fiscal cliff, the Golden Gophers dive off another cliff on Monday afternoon against the Michigan State Spartans. While politicians in both parties at least superficially try to avoid the fiscal cliff, the conference cliff is unavoidable. While the fiscal cliff can be retroactively averted by legislation, once the ball is tipped on New Year’s Eve, there is no going back. Everything we have been simultaneously dreading and anticipating has arrived, and it isn’t going away until sometime in March (or April, if we dream hard enough).
How the Gophers got here:
Even the most pessimistic Gophers fan, and at least one is writing this article, has to consider the non-conference season a success. The lone loss was to Duke, which is the #1 team in the country. The rest of the wins were either blow-outs against bad teams or closer against decent competition. Memphis, Florida State, Stanford, and USC are not murderers row, but they aren’t horrible. Well, USC is horrible, but that was a road game, and the Gophers usually struggle on the road, even with bad teams.
How the Spartans got here:
The Spartans come in to Big Ten play with an 11-2 record, with one better win and two worse losses than the Gophers. They started the season with a loss to UCONN in Germany, because their athletic director thinks basketball is not interesting enough. If you want to hate the Spartans but find Izzo just too darn likable direct your hate towards Mark Hollis, inventor of aircraft carrier games and thankfully not four simultaneous games under one roof. They have a very good win over Kansas, and a mysterious loss to Miami in the Big Ten-ACC challenge. There are a few run of the mill blow-outs, and then two odd wins that could possibly concerning. The Spartans beat Boise State and Lousiana-Lafayette by a combined seven points. What does that mean? I suppose we’ll find out soon.
Spartans statistics to watch:
Even when Michigan State has the best point guard in the league, they struggle with turnovers. Now, with a scorer playing point guard, their turnover numbers are heading off the charts. The Spartans commit turnovers on 23% of their possessions, which means 280 teams take better care of the ball. They are currently bookended by Towson and Arkansas-Little Rock in that category. Keith Appling has actually done a decent job of holding on to the ball, but his teammates, especially everyone over 6’4” should be making Tom Izzo go gray. Michigan State is ultimately a good offensive team when they take care of the ball, but there have only been three games this season when they could make that claim. They won all three by the way.
Gophers statistic to watch
All rebounds are not created equal, and the Gophers are going way out of their way to prove that offensive and defensive rebounding are different skill sets. The Gophers are the best offensive rebounding team in the country, and the worst defensive rebounding team in the Big Ten, letting opponents pull down 35% of their own missed shots. Things have been better in recent games, and they’ll need to be even better against the Spartans, who are also a very good offensive rebounding team. The Gophers don’t need to win the rebounding battle on either end of the court, but they do have to keep it close. If the Spartans end with more shot attempts than the Gophers, it become exponentially more difficult for the Gophers to win.
The most important Spartan:
Derrick Nix is a big body. At 6’9” and 270 pounds and surprisingly agile, the Gophers don’t have any individual who can beat him. Luckily, Nix has been beating himself too often this season. He had 25 points in his last game, but also has several bad games this season. He scored only six points against UCONN and three against Miami, both losses. If he gets rolling, the Gophers will get rolled.
The most important Gopher:
Austin Hollins might be the best defender in the Big Ten. He can also be a valuable offensive player thanks to his ability to handle the ball, get out in transition, and hit timely jumpers. He is also an extremely streaky player that appears to lose confidence in his shot on occasion. He hasn’t scored in double figures since the South Dakota State game. Against the Spartans usually tough man to man defense, the Gophers will desperately need a player to knock down some shots curling of screens or on the wing in transition.
There is something immensely appropriate that Branden Dawson and Trevor Mbakwe will play each other the day after Adrian Peterson nearly broke the NFL single season rushing records, here in the land of 10,000 ACLs. In a battle between surgeons, Dawson seems to have won, and doesn’t look like he has missed a step since being injured last March. Mbakwe has had a longer road back, but is finally back and should play around 30 minutes. While similarly built, and both more comfortable on the inside, Dawson will be playing more often on the wing thanks to the transfer of Brandon Kearney. How he adjusts to that, and how Mbakwe defends him on the perimeter, could decide the game.
What to expect:
If past performance is indicative of future results, I advise you to keep your distance from The Barn. Last year the Gophers blew a nine point second half lead to the Spartans. The year before it was an eight point second half lead. The year before that it was an 11 point second half lead. If this is the same old Gophers, be glad that heart break hurts less when it is expected. If this team really is different, they might just hold a lead and pull off a surprising win. Both teams are evenly matched, and it should be close.