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Michigan State pregame

Minnesota (12-1) takes on Michigan State (8-5) in the Big Ten opener for both teams. The Golden Gophers welcome Hall of Fame Coach Tom Izzo who will be without his leading scorer.

The Storyline

Miles Bridges (6-foot-7, 230 pounds) entered college as the 14th ranked freshman in the nation and he’s played like it leading the Spartans in scoring with 16.6 points per game on 48 percent field goal shooting and 38.5% three-point shooting.  Bridges also led the Spartans in rebounding at 8.8 a contest in 32.5 minutes a game.  Problem is Bridges hasn’t played the last five contests and Coach Tom Izzo said today that Bridges is “very, very doubtful” to play in Williams Arena tomorrow night.

Three of the top four leading Spartan scorers are freshmen led by Bridges and followed by 6-foot-8, 265 pound Nick Ward (13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds shooting 61 percent in only 18 minutes a game) and six foot point guard Cassius Winston (7.5 points and 6.0 assists per contest).  Ward, Winston, and 6th leading scorer Joshua Langford (six points a game) are all freshman that had been coming off the bench until Izzo started them nearly a week ago in a 12 point win over Oakland.  Ward responded with 25 points while benched 6-foot-3 senior Eron Harris (the team’s second leading scorer at 13.4 points per game shooting 38.6 percent) had 15. 

Harris and senior guard Matt McQuaid are normal starters for Izzo as is senior worker Matt Van Dyk and junior point guard Laurawls “Tum Tum” Nairn. Nairn joined Harris and Alvin Ellis coming off the bench (Nairn and Ellis were both players that Minnesota recruited hard, Ellis actually signed with Minnesota but was released when Tubby Smith was fired) in that recent game.  Yesterday Nairn, second on the team in assists behind Winston, was seen in a walking boot.

Michigan State has played quite a tough schedule and has lost all the games they’ve played against the nation’s top 25.  The losses to Arizona and Duke were by a few scores while the Kentucky and Baylor losses were by double figures.  Minnesota’s only comparable game would be Florida State who Minnesota lost to on the road.

Both teams have played and beat St. John’s. Minnesota has also beaten Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and a good UT-Arlington team while the Spartans have beaten Wichita State, Florida Gulf Coast (by a point), and Oral Roberts (by two scores).  Michigan State was upset on their home floor by Northeastern. 

Minnesota comes into the game at 12-1 (four more wins than last season overall) and relatively healthy (although they of course lost junior Davonte Fitzgerald for the season). Because of recent past much of the Gopher fan base and Twin Cities area still has very little faith that this team can do well in the Big Ten season.  Tubby Smith did go 12-1 in non-conference play his last three years at Minnesota and missed on the Big Dance two of those times so fans are quite reluctant.

That reluctance will be one of several reasons that Williams Arena will not be the full crowd that it usually would be for a game like this.  School is out of session so students will be away from campus, many fans have traveled to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl which will be played at the exact same time, and many other fans will be at home or at the local establishments so they can watch both the football game and the basketball game. 

The Numbers

The Spartans are a plus four on the glass for the season which is solid although MSU is usually a plus seven or eight when they play the Gophers.  With the Spartan top rebounder not available and Minnesota being an improved rebounding team (they are positive which is an improvement from last year) the rebounding battle could be closer than the usual double figure different (last year MSU grabbed 17 o-boards and had the board edge 43-33).

Michigan State is turning the ball over three to four more times per game than their opponents which is rare for an Izzo team. Tom Izzo’s usual crisp sets are not quite as crisp yet with four freshmen logging such big minutes. 

What did a .500 Northeastern team do to Michigan State that led to a shocking win? They rebounded with the Spartans (a plus 2), they did a better job at the foul line (made 20-24 to Michigan State’s 16-26), and they hit 11 of 23 three-pointers with the Spartans making 5 of 16.  Minnesota is a plus 2.5 on the glass this year and rebound well when Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy aren’t in foul trouble, the Gophers are shooting 35.4 percent from the arc on the season (better than expected by a couple points), and 69.3 percent at the foul line. 

The Gophers have been outstanding defending the arc forcing opponents into 28.5 percent shooting.  Many of their opponents have come into previous games with stellar three-point shooting numbers so Minnesota’s defense has had as much to do with that 28.5 percent as the opposition’s talent level has. The Spartans shooting 37.5% from the arc with the top weapons being Harris (39% on 5-6 attempts a game), Winston (36% on 2 a game), McQuaid (34% on 4-5 a game), Langford (46% on 2 a game), and Ellis (38% on 2-3 a game).  If Bridges does play, he takes five threes a contest and makes just under 40 percent.

The Match-Ups

Michigan State is another opponent that Minnesota will face that has gone with a lot of smaller line-ups.  The only players that Izzo used last Wednesday bigger than 6-foot-5 were Nick Ward and 6-foot-6, 225 pound sophomore Kenny Goins.  With Gavin Schilling (6-ft-9, 240lbs) and Ben Carter (6-9, 225) both likely out for the year with Injuries, and now Bridges out, Ward is really the team’s only true frontcourt player.  Goins, a former walk-on, has started a dozen games this year and is one of the best defenders you will see inside and out. 

The Gophers will be more than willing to use Reggie Lynch (6-ft-9) and Bakary Konate (6-ft-11) on Nick Ward but then go small with power forwards Jordan Murphy (6-ft-6) and Eric Curry (6-ft-9) playing together up front.  Ward is a lefty with a touch but also great bounce and a really wide base.  He’s been described as the next Zach Randolph but with bounce.  If the Gophers can limit Ward or even get him in foul trouble they be facing a Spartan line-up of all guards and wings.

Playing some point guard and some small forward Amir Coffey will always be as big, or bigger than all of the Spartans on the floor.  Expect the Spartans to be rough with Coffey right away, likely with Goins who can move his feet and battle with just about anybody.  Goins only scores once or twice a game but will be the second best rebounder and second best shot blocker the Spartans have. Langford may be a freshman but he’s physical so he may be on Coffey as well.

We previously listed all the shooters and Harris seems to be the scariest of all them.  He made 44 percent of his treys a year ago and is at 39 percent now.  At 6-foot-3 and being a veteran he will likely see Dupree McBrayer on him early and veteran Akeem Springs on him later.  Speaking of McBrayer he is three baskets behind Nate Mason from being the team’s leading scorer.   Mason is everybody’s worry because he’s played so well this year (13.2 points, 5.4 assists, 45% 3pt) but McBrayer has scored 40 points in the last two games.  Dupree’s ability to knock out threes (42 percent, is one make from being 50% field goal overall), his quick step into lanes after a reversal, and his transition push have all been tough for defenders to keep in check.  McQuaid and Winston will have their work cut out for them although McQuaid is an excellent defender. 

The toughest defensive job for the Spartans will likely be young Winston working to slow down Nate Mason.  Tum Tum has done a great job on Mason in the past (5 of 17 shooting last year) but if Nairn is limited that means the job of defending Mason falls into the lap of a guy playing his first Big Ten game (Winston).  Mason has been excellent defensively too so Winston’s six assists a game will also be a battle.  That said Winston works off ball screens like a veteran and fighting over screens has been a problem for Mason at times (and for Dupree and you can bet Izzo has seen that on film). If Tum Tum does play he’s still a non-scoring threat but he runs the offense well and takes care of the ball.


We just went through all of those numbers and match-ups and the one thing I couldn’t find was a Spartan player that is a good physical match-up for Jordan Murphy working off the ball.  Guys like Van Dyk and Goins are great workers but don’t have the size and agility combo that should be able to stop Minnesota’s leading rebounder and fourth leading scorer (10 and 8).  This is a game where Murphy should step up as off the ball he gives them a huge edge and if they can get him a post touch in space that could work too.

I think this is a game that Minnesota should win and if they don’t things will really have to be dissected.  Izzo is a great coach and has young talent but he should without three bigs he expected to have for Big Ten play and is likely without his leading scorer. In addition, Michigan State has not been playing the way he wants and he recently did a line-up overhaul starting several of the freshmen.

Minnesota should win the frontcourt battle and if the McBrayer & Mason backcourt duo plays the way they have been playing, the Gophers could win this by four scores. I think they will be close to that.

Minnesota 74 Michigan State 68.

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