Would you believe it? Two months in after a season that saw the Gophers win a measly 8 games, they’re sitting at 12-1 after a highly successful non-conference slate .. and it doesn’t look like a fluke.
To quickly recap, the Gophers took down Arkansas, Vanderbilt and St. John’s, with another key win over UT-Arlington, and basically mowed down their other mid/low-major foes with the exception of a couple. And though their loss to Florida State wasn’t a pretty one, it’s clear that this team has basically turned a 180 from last year thanks to an influx of talent and the ability (thus far) to execute on that talent. Dupree McBrayer is the surprise of the season, while Nate Mason and Akeem Springs are rounding out the backcourt with a solid veteran presence. Reggie Lynch has been a game-changer on defense, while newcomer Amir Coffey has been as good as advertised. Jordan Murphy has been more up than down, and Eric Curry has been contributed an effective 21 minutes per game off the bench.
But enough with the back-patting. Everyone knows the real season starts with conference play, and Minnesota gets an interesting first test with Michigan State at home. Frankly, it’s an opportune matchup. The Gophers need a win over a big name to legitimize what’s been a successful run so far, and they get a beatable Spartans team who is only one game removed from a head-scratching loss to Northeastern. The Spartans have been ravaged by injuries this season, which has decimated their frontcourt and a vacuum of senior leadership has Tom Izzo frustrated.
But we’ve seen this before. Yes, Michigan State is 8-5, but this isn’t Izzo’s first rodeo. They’ve been in similar positions. And to think that they won’t come into Williams Arena hungry and with something to prove would be short-sighted. The Spartans have played a tough schedule so far and, while they’ve lost to the likes of Arizona, Kentucky and Duke, they’ve also beaten Wichita State. This is a dangerous team with a veteran coach going up against a young Minnesota team that has everything to prove. Buckle up.
Who are the Gophers playing?
Michigan State Spartans (8-5)
What time are they playing?
8 p.m. CT
Where are they playing?
Can I watch the game on TV?
Can I listen to the game on the radio?
Yes. ESPN 1500.
Tell me more about the opponent.
You certainly would hate to cheapen the win, but it’s looking highly unlikely that freshman phenom Miles Bridges will be in uniform. Battling a high ankle sprain, Bridges has missed the last five games, and Izzo said he is “very, very, very, very, very doubtful” for the game. And now it’s being reported that PG Tum Tum Nairn is in a walking boot with foot stiffness. His status is unclear for the game. Add that to injuries MSU faced before the season even started (Fs Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter are out for the year) and it’s a long list of hurt Spartans.
Long story short, the Spartans lineup is totally in flux. Izzo has thrown his early season lineup blueprint out the door, while giving people like freshmen PG Cassius Winston and PF Nick Ward the opportunity to shine . Winston has responded terrifically, with seven or more assists in six straight games. Ward has also been a beneficiary of the switch up and has garnered back to back B1G Freshman of the Week honors.
BUT. The Schilling/Carter/Bridges injuries have significantly shrunk Michigan State, and Ward is now the only healthy Spartan above 6-6. This provides an excellent opportunity for Minnesota to assert itself down low, and where a player like Lynch can thrive.
The Spartans have also been killing themselves from the free throw line. We might think we have it bad from the stripe here, but Sparty ranks an incredible 329th in the nation from the line, hitting at only 62%. It was a key factor in the team’s loss to Northeastern.
The Spartans are also turning the ball over a TON, which could give the Gophers a nice shot at some points off turnovers.
Keys to the Game
The Spartans are a team in a bit of disarray, and Izzo has been vocal about needing more from his seniors. But, once again, his freshmen are stepping up. The opportunity for the Gophers is certainly there, but Sparty definitely has the firepower to give Minnesota some fits as well.
- Use the size advantage — It’s no secret that the Spartans are smaller than they’d like to be. With their frontcourt ravaged by injuries they’re particularly susceptible to bigger teams. Coffey, Curry and Lynch could pose challenges to the MSU defense with a height advantage. But, above all, Lynch has GOT to stay out of early foul trouble. One of the biggest takeaways from this season so far has been his impact when on the court. The game changes when he’s not in the lineup.
- Avoid extended scoring droughts — In each of their major conference opponent matchups this year the Gophers have had extended scoring droughts that have stretched to seven minutes at times. With a stout defense, they’ve managed to steer clear of disaster and weather the storm, but they won’t have that luxury in the Big Ten. A team like Michigan State will close any gap in a hurry if Minnesota isn’t putting points on the board for minutes on end.
KenPom is narrowly giving this one to the Gophers, predicting a 72-68 win. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think Minnesota wins this in a barn burner, 62-60.
Lord help us. I’m not going to survive this season.