USA Today

Michigan State Pregame: The Rematch

Richard Pitino won’t have to get creative in motivating players for tonight’s game with Michigan State in East Lansing, they have a score to settle.

The Storyline

Minnesota is 3-1 in conference play and they quickly get a chance to avenge that one loss (in overtime to the Spartans on December 27th).  Yesterday when the Gopher players talked to the media the word “revenge” came from their lips regularly.  The Gophers held a 14 point lead at one point and had buzzer beating chances to win the game in regulation, and in overtime.  Both failed.

The Gophers have since won three games and are now the 24th ranked team in the nation according to the many polls revealed on Monday.  Last game Michigan State’s Miles Bridges missed the contest due to injury.  He is now playing but Minnesota has a banged up freshman themselves in Eric Curry.  The Gopher back-up power forward/center has a bruised heel that he played with on Sunday despite pain.

The Spartans are 3-1 in Big Ten play and 11-6 overall this year.  They, along with Minnesota, Purdue, and Nebraska, share first place in the Big Ten after four games.  The winner of tonight’s game will likely share first place with one other team going into the week.  Michigan State cruised to a win over Rutgers and beat Northwestern by nine but over the weekend they dropped a game to Penn State 72-63.

The Numbers

Nick Ward dominated Minnesota up front making 9 of 14 shots for his 22 points and ten boards.  He made only 4 of 13 free throws but did his part in putting fouls on the Gopher size.  Reggie Lynch played only 11 of the 45 minutes because he had five fouls.  Bakary Konate and Eric Curry each had four and played with foul trouble late in the game. 

Minnesota fans were frustrated with Gopher free throws (31 of 45) but it was Michigan State who was really ugly (10 of 22).  The Gophers have way more chances and shot 69 percent compared to the 45 percent from MSU.  Both teams were ugly from the arc (Minnesota was 3 of 13, MSU 5 of 18), and the Gophers actually won a rebounding battle with the Spartans for once (46 to 39).

Former Gopher signed Alvin Ellis averages 5.8 points per game for the Spartans and has made 19 threes in 17 games.  Three of those triples were against Minnesota when Ellis 20 points in 36 minutes.  Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn scores 4.4 points per game and has made eight threes all season.  A quarter of those makes were against the Gophers as he scored 13 in 29 minutes. 

The Spartans aren’t likely to get that kind of production out of Ellis and Nairn tomorrow but Minnesota held third leading scorer Eron Harris (12.6 a night) to five points on 2 of 9 shooting and allowed fourth leading scorer Cassius Winston to two scores.  Not to mention Miles Bridges and his 14.3 points and 8.2 rebounds a game didn’t play.  

Miles Bridges has been slowly getting back to comfortable in the two games he’s played since injury.  Versus Rutgers and Penn State the freshman played a combined 45 minutes totaling 10 points in two games shooting 5 of 13.  He didn’t start the Rutgers game and played sparingly but did start at Penn State where he played 27 minutes.  Bridges was hot from the arc before the injury (made 13 of his last 28 threes) but hasn’t made a three since his return.

Michigan State is not a big team at all playing Ward at center at 6-foot-8 and often going with four guards/wings (Kenny Goins played only seven minutes in game one, Matt Van Dyk 14 minutes).  This allowed Gopher power forward Jordan Murphy to total 12 points and 21 rebounds (the highest single game rebounding total at Minnesota in over 50 years).  Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer, and Amir Coffey scored 18, 14, and 17 points respectively against the Spartan backcourt.

The Match-Ups

One of the key reasons that Minnesota had such a nice start in the first game with MSU was that Lynch and Jordan Murphy started so well on defense.  Murphy earned a quick block, steal, and turnover force with his help into a recovery on a kick out.  This game will be different though as he won’t be able to leave Bridges like he was able to leave Van Dyk.  

Bridges does not look fully recovered from his injury so Minnesota needs to attack him with Murphy but on the other end Jordan needs to not only play well on defense early, but later in the game when fatigue hits.  That’s the next step for Murphy as a defender.  Bridges will not always be on Murphy as Kenny Goins will see him too.  Goins barely got to play in the Williams Arena game as the officials whistled him for pretty much everything short of Kenny whistling.

How does Minnesota defend Ward? Ward is fantastic at getting position in the post and he can turn over either shoulder to score.  Ward is agile in his hips and quick feet plus he has good footwork for a young player.  The Gophers needs to first work him higher off the block and not allow such easy post entries. 

That’s easier said than done the way the Purdue and Michigan State games were called.  If the officials are similar to the last two games (Northwestern and Ohio State), the Gophs should be fine.  If they get officials calling all contact, Minnesota will face more foul issues.  And the game is at Michigan State in Tom Izzo’s house so expect a lot of touch fouls on the Gopher bigs once again.

Back to Ward.  First and foremost Reggie Lynch needs to play 20 minutes, at least. Last game versus Ward he played 11 and that has to change.  Reggie has played very well on both ends during this three game winning streak and making Ward defend is a key part to this game.  Expect early touches in the paint for Lynch just like he had against Ohio State.  Reggie has shown he can score turning over both shoulders and using either hand as well.  

On defense Lynch and his group must make Ward shoot over the top of them.  Bakary Koante did a nice job of that later in the December 27th game but the damage was done.  I would expect Konate to give good defensive minutes on Ward and that Lynch plays more meaning Ward will not have the same success.  He will still have some success most likely, but he isn’t likely to dominate the game inside when the Big Ten’s leading shot blocker is playing at least half the game.

Nate Mason’s first half against Cassius Winston in the Big Ten opener should give Gopher fans confidence.  Winston couldn’t keep Mason in front while Mason frustrated the Spartan freshman regularly with his defensive efforts.  That said, Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn turned things around on Mason with his physical pressure plus Nairn scored 13 points and hit two threes.  Most often Gopher fans are happy that the Gophers landed Mason instead of Nairn in the 2014 class but Tum Tum outplayed Mason in the second half. 

The Gophers need Mason to win this match-up and he’s coming off a couple ugly shooting games after his career performance against Purdue.  Not only did Tum Tum outplay him in half two, Winston attacked Mason late in the game for a clutch score and then Mason missed two chances to win the game (a second foul shot and then a buzzer beating chance).

Alvin Ellis.  There is no way he has another game like he did at Minnesota.  That said Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer, and Akeem Springs need to limit him, Harris, and Matt McQuaid.  Minnesota has the more talented wings (when you consider that Bridges play the four often) and if they want to get the win tonight they have to play like it.  Springs and Coffey are coming off fabulous games, Springs was so good both ways he replaced McBrayer in the rotation down the stretch. 

Prediction

We are in for another physical battle tonight.  The first key ingredient is how do the officials call the game?  If they put fouls on all the frontcourt players again both ways (besides Ward who for some reason was able to be more physical than his teammates and opponents were allowed) it will be frustrating.

Last game the free throw shooting of both teams was frustrating.  Minnesota couldn’t make the clutch ones, MSU couldn’t make any.  Ward has been so bad from the foul line don’t be surprised to see the Gophs go through stretches where Bakary and maybe Curry foul him quicker than expected (pending time and score).

What role does Bridges play?  Murphy will have to defend his own man with more focus but Bridges is a much worse defender than Goins and Van Dyk so Murphy should get his numbers again.

Bridges is key and on the other side Mason and Lynch are very important.  If Lynch stays on the floor and plays like he has in the winning streak Minnesota has a chance to win.  If Mason has a good shooting game the Gophers will win. This is in East Lansing though, getting the results needed is always tough.  Like the other road games my initial gut says the home Big Ten team wins in a close one but……

Minnesota will have a different motivation tonight.  Not only because of the December loss, but also because Mason and Dupree will have extra motivation after some tough games and Lynch, he actually wants to play tonight against MSU. That said, Michigan State just lost to Penn State and you can bet their focus will be sharp as well.

Minnesota 65 Michigan State 64


Gopher Illustrated Top Stories