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Minnesota Basketball: Previewing Michigan State

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Gophers on the hunt for retribution in East Lansing

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Penn State Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Just two weeks ago the Gophers were kicking off the conference season against Michigan State and looking to transition from a successful non-con to the Big Ten slate. It didn’t go quite as planned, but even with an OT loss in the conference opener Minnesota showed it belonged and used that momentum as a springboard to three straight league victories. Momentum after a loss? When you go 8-23 the year before, absolutely.

Fast forward to today and the Gophers already have a chance for retribution against Michigan State; only this time it’s on the road in East Lansing. The previous loss to Sparty was a missed opportunity for the Gophers, who let a double-digit second half lead evaporate. The loss also saw the Gophers fail to take advantage of a Spartan team without one of its key contributors, standout freshman Miles Bridges who was out with an injury.

Michigan State appeared to have righted the ship after a rocky non-conference season, winning its first three conference games. But the Spartans ran into trouble at The Palestra on the road against Penn State on Saturday, signaling that they may not be quite out of the woods of inconsistency this season.

Riding a nice streak of their own, the Gophers are surprisingly looking like one of the teams to beat early on, and have a chance to cement their position at the top of the standings with a win in Breslin Center.

Essentials:

Who are the Gophers playing?

Michigan State (11-6, 3-1)

What time are they playing?

6 p.m. CT

Where are they playing?

Breslin Center

Can I watch the game on TV?

Yes, BTN.

Can I listen to the game on the radio?

Yes. ESPN 1500.

Tell me more about the opponent.

The Spartans are still smarting from the ongoing injuries to forwards Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter. Both 6-9, neither has played a game this season, and Carter is out for the season. That has significantly shrunk Michigan State and forced Tom Izzo to rejigger his lineups.

Unfortunately, the absences of the Carter and Schilling has given rise to Nick Ward, a freshman big man who is really putting it together. He torched the Gophers in game one to the tune of 22 points and 10 rebounds, and was key down the stretch for the Spartans in that game. He hasn’t slowed down either, averaging 14 points and 6 boards in the last three games, while totaling 11 blocks. He’s also now Michigan State’s second leading scorer.

Bridges is dangerous, but after seven games off due to injury his comeback has been a bit slow. In the last two games he’s scored only 10 points total, bottoming out at four in 27 minutes in the Penn State loss. Bridges is clearly not himself yet, which gives the Gophers another shot at the Spartans before they’re back to full(er) strength.

Freshman point guard Cassius Winston is another enigma for MSU. He’s filled in/usurped fellow guard Tum Tum Nairn, but has been inconsistent at best. He can certainly deliver the ball, but scoring-wise he’s been anything but consistently effective. In fact, after seeing his minutes increase substantially midway through the season, he’s seen them steadily decrease in the past four games.

Keys to the Game

The Gophers ran into a Nick Ward buzzsaw last time around and were bulled by him close to the hoop. But since then they’ve been hardened by two road victories and a commanding home win, so I’m hoping they’ve learned a couple things since then.

  1. Get to the hoop and draw fouls — Sparty is anything but deep, and with the Gophers being one of the better teams in the nation at getting to the line, they have the opportunity to get Ward and/or Bridges in early foul trouble. Ward doesn’t foul a whole lot, but getting either on the bench would benefit Minnesota in the size department.
  2. Steady play from the upperclassmen — Back on the road after only a single-game reprieve, the Gophers are going to need some support from Akeem Springs and Nate Mason. Minnesota’s depth has benefited the team often this season, and when Mason went cold against Ohio State, Amir Coffey and Springs were right there to pick up the slack. However, in an unfriendly gym, another strong performance from Mason will help provide solid footing.

Predictions

KenPom has this as basically a toss-up, but is giving the Spartans the edge in a 70-69 game. I think the Gophers will have learned quite a bit from their last meeting, and like them by two in the rematch.