It's been a rough month for Gopher basketball fans. Losses aside, I think one of the bigger frustrations facing us all is the knowledge that this team's last quality win came over Michigan State on New Year's Eve. Tomorrow night the Gophers have a chance not only to complete the season sweep, but to notch another quality win and beat MSU for only the 4th time EVER in the Breslin Center.
To get us back up to speed on the Spartans I contacted Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) from our fellow Mothership blog The Only Colors. He was kind enough to answer my questions as well as ask a few of his own (my answers to which you can find here).
The Daily Gopher: Talk about teams that have been going in different directions. Following the loss to Minnesota to open the B1G season, MSU has gone 7-1. In that same time period the Gophers have gone 4-4 (with all four losses being part of one big losing streak). So, tell me about this stretch for the Spartans. Do you feel they are a better team than the one that lost in The Barn? Or do you think the performance at MN was more of an abberation?
Chris Vannini: That depends. I think Minnesota is certainly a better team than we've seen in this losing streak. MSU's performance at The Barn really wasn't that bad until the final minutes. Simply put, the difference between that game and MSU's stretch since then is that the Spartans have closed better. They were right there with the Gophers until a run in the final minutes turned it into a blowout. Since then, MSU has gone 4-1 in games decided by five points or less, along with tight first haves against Purdue, Nebraska and Penn State. So, no, the performance at Minnesota wasn't an aberration. MSU has just played better at the end of games since then.
TDG: Gopher fans should be familiar with the Spartans since we've seen them once already. With you guys on a roll, should Gopher fans be keeping an eye out for anyone different? Or has your success come form the usual suspects playing better?
CV: Adreian Payne has really turned it on in the past month. The former five-star recruit has been starting at power forward with Derrick Nix at center, and this has allowed Payne to score more through jump-shots, including three-point shooting. In the first meeting between these teams, Payne had four points and seven rebounds (one offensive) in 24 minutes. Especially given MSU's injuries, I'd be surprised if Payne doesn't play more than 30 minutes and score more than four points this time around. As for those injuries, guard Gary Harris (back spasms) and Travis Trice (head) were hurt in the last game. Thankfully, they've had a week to heal since the last game. Harris is more likely to play than Trice, but MSU's backcourt depth in this one is going to be very short.
TDG: What do you think the Spartans need to do to win this one? Has Izzo been teaching the 1-3-1 this week? Because that's our kryptonite and I'll watch something off my DVR instead if Izzo ever went crazy and implemented that zone.
CV: Ha. Izzo will never play zone. Not ever. (ED NOTE: Praise Jobu!) Which can be frustrating at times, but the man knows what he's doing. The biggest key is going to be rebounding in this one. These are two great offensive rebounding teams, but the Gophers' odd struggles on the defensive end have been odd. In the first meeting, MSU grabbed an impressive 39 percent of its misses, but the Gophers grabbed an incredible 46.7 percent. That cannot happen this time around. MSU's starting lineup has changed (with the center Payne going in for guard Denzel Valentine), so the length shouldn't be as much of a factor this time. Minnesota is the only team to outrebound MSU this season.
TDG: We're halfway through the B1G season. What are your expectations for MSU the rest of the way? Have they changed at all?
CV: I don't know about expectations right now, but being one game back of Indiana, all the focus is on whether or not the Spartans can get to the Big Ten championship. The Hoosiers have a very difficult remaining schedule, while MSU has to go to Michigan and Ohio State, but the rest of the difficult games are at home? If I was betting man, I'd say the Spartans fall short. Given their close games in Big Ten play so far, you could say they're a bit lucky to still be within a game at this point, but they're here. If Harris and Trice are out for an extended period, it could mean big trouble, but if they're OK, finishing in the top four of the B1G and earning a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament would be great.
TDG: What are your predictions for Wednesday night?
CV: Well, this certainly hinges on the health of Harris and Trice. But if they can at least be serviceable, I'm going with MSU in a close one. If MSU wants to contend for the Big Ten, it has to win this one, and I think they find a way at home. If Harris and Trice can't go, I'll switch my pick to the Gophers.
Thanks to Chris for helping us out! Be sure to check back tomorrow night (who am I kidding, you'll still be here because of all the NSD coverage!) to join in the Michigan State game Open Thread.