It's been a very positive year for Minnesota, which has made a significant climb up the Big Ten ladder.
After winning three of their first four Big Ten games, the Gophers weren't convinced they could handle the upper-echelon teams in the conference, but they were certainly interested in finding out exactly where they stood.
The Gophers got an answer to that question when Michigan State came to Minneapolis Jan. 22. The Spartans were faster, tougher and more skilled ... and that was obviously apparent in a 69-55 Michigan State victory.
The Gophers went into the game with a bit of a health problem, as center Jeff Hagen had suffered a major ankle sprain in their Jan. 19 overtime win against Ohio State. Hagen was very questionable against Michigan State, but played a noble game in scoring 16 points and coming down with six rebounds.
But aside from the gimpy Hagen, the Gophers could not get their offense untracked against Michigan State's feisty defense. The Spartans clogged the lane and limited Gophers leading scorer Vincent Grier to 10 points by cutting off his path to the basket.
Grier missed eight of his first nine shots, but his runner with 2:14 left brought the Gophers within five at 58-53. However, that was as close as they could get as the Spartans closed the game on an 11-2 run.
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo explained how the Spartans slowed down Grier, the Gophers' leading scorer. "We had the six-eyes rule," Izzo told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Every time he caught the ball we had six eyes on him. Two from the guy guarding him and two from the closest guy on each side."
Minnesota learned it's not ready for a team like Michigan State. This week may be more of the same with games against Indiana and top-ranked Illinois.
— Minnesota has lost five of its past seven home games against Michigan State.
— The Gophers are connecting on 49.6 percent of their shots — the third-best mark in the Big Ten.
— The Gophers are passing the ball extremely well. The Gophers record 16.8 assists per game — that ranks third in the Big Ten.
PROBABLE LINEUP: Point guard Brent Lawson, shooting guard Aaron Robinson, center Jeff Hagen, power forward Dan Coleman, guard-forward Vincent Grier.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Michigan State is the best team we've played so far. We just weren't good enough. We have a really small margin for error, and we used it up." — Minnesota coach Dan Monson after losing to Michigan State Jan. 22.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UPCOMING GAMES: vs. Indiana, Jan. 26; at Illinois, Jan. 29
KEYS: The Gophers may think they can get the best of Indiana at home, but the Hoosiers have won four straight Big Ten games and are playing much more consistently. Minnesota could win, but it would take a solid shooting night as well as a good game on the boards to do it. The Gophers can't win at Illinois, but they could learn something from the undefeated Illini and may be able to push the No. 1 team in the nation for a while.
ROSTER REPORT: Guard-forward Vincent Grier scored was held to 10 points in the loss at Iowa, but he is still averaging a team-high 16.9 ppg.
— Guard Aaron Robinson is averaging 8.4 points and a team-high 2.8 assists per game.
— Center Jeff Hagen sprained his left ankle in the Jan. 19 win over Ohio State and had to come out of that game in the first half. He returned Jan. 22 against Michigan State and scored 16 points on the gimpy joint.
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