And now, for one night only, the Golden Gophers can play some consequence-free basketball against the Michigan State Spartans. Two wins last week gave the Gophers a bit of breathing room. Losing five out of six games would have put the Gophers squarely on the bubble, or even the wrong side of the bubble, and Wednesday evening’s game in East Lansing  would have been a true must-win. As a team, Minnesota is not the most mentally stable, and their decision-making leaves a lot to be desired. I don’t want to think about how the team would likely react in a pressure-cooker of a game in a mad house like the Breslin Center. Instead, the Gophers can play like they have something to prove without dire consequences if they do not, like  New Year’s Eve when these two teams first met.

Since last time:
When the Gophers and Spartans played in December, Minnesota was trying to prove they could make the jump to the upper tier of the Big Ten, while Michigan State was trying to prove they are still among the Big Ten elite. Not much has changed since then. The Gophers are obviously better than last year, but could use another good win or two to solidify of spot in the NCAA tournament. Despite a suspect statistical profile, the Spartans are 7-2 in conference play. Their only losses were on the road to the Gophers and the Hoosiers. Minnesota’s win over the Spartans remains their best of the season.

Gophers statistic to watch:
In the first game between these teams, the Gophers shot 60% on two point field-goal attempts, seemingly scoring at will on the inside. Despite all sorts of size down low, the Spartans continue to be worst in the Big Ten at defending two-point shots. During the four game losing streak, the Gophers shot less than 50% on two-point shots, and exceeded 50% during their current two game winning streak. To have any chance to win in a hostile environment, the Gophers need to make their shots close in, especially against a team whose interior defense has major holes.

Spartans Statistic to watch:
Minnesota’s turnovers will come, often in bunches. However, a turnover is only good if you do something with it. Somehow, in the first meeting, the Spartans offense was worse on possessions following Gopher turnovers than it was when the Gophers did not commit turnovers, despite 10 steals which should have led to lots of easy baskets. The Spartans need to capitalize on these opportunities, and take advantage of Minnesota’s biggest weakness.

The most important Gopher:
Rodney Williams should present a real match-up problem for the Spartans. While the Spartans front line is huge, they are not fleet of foot. Williams was able to use his quickness to his advantage to score 15 points on New Year’s Eve. After more or less vanishing during the losing streak, Williams returned to double figures in each of the last two games. Trevor Mbakwe is usually steady. One of the Hollinses usually steps up. To pull off an upset on the road, the Gophers need at least three scoring options. Williams is the most capable third scoring option, and also the most prone to disappear.

The most important Spartan:
The big question for the Spartans is if Gary Harris can play on Wednesday, and if he can, for how long. He left the last game with back spasms, and his status is somewhat uncertain. The Spartans have real depth concerns in the back court, and Harris gives them a scoring and ball handling option after Keith Appling. He also happens to be the team’s best three-point shooter.

Key match-up:
Trevor Mbakwe and Derrick Nix, because of their size and similar games, will always be an intriguing match-up. In the first meeting, Mbakwe won the battle with 11 points and 12 rebounds, but his five turnovers hurt his productivity. Nix made only 5-15 shots, which represents his most shot attempts this season and most misses this season. Both players know they need to play better, and it should be fun to watch them try.

What to expect:
The Gophers played their best game of the season, and still weren’t able to pull away from the Spartans until the closing minutes the first time these teams played. The Gophers are not playing their best basketball right now. While the Spartans have looked ugly most of the Big Ten season, they’ve been winning ugly too. They’ll muck it up, and win ugly again.