Gophers Need Big Play Against MSU

Coming off a hard-fought loss to a ranked team in Indiana, the Gophers will have a different kind of team to face Sunday against Michigan State. It will be a big challenge for Minnesota's big guys.

When Minnesota faced Michigan State in East Lansing on Jan. 5, the Gophers tried to climb out of a 13-point hole, and they fell 65-59 in front of a sellout crowd at the Breslin Center. Michigan State did a lot wrong that night — see four points for Drew Neitzel and only two players in double figures.

But sophomore forward Raymar Morgan had his way in the paint, as he scored a career-high 31 points. Minnesota has to make its presence known in the post on offense and defense when the Spartans come to Williams Arena in Minneapolis on Sunday.

Minnesota will have to neutralize Morgan if it is going to get the win. That means that seniors Spencer Tollackson and Dan Coleman have to put a body on him.

Sophomore forward Damian Johnson, the team's leader in blocks, will try to use his 7-foot-5 wingspan off the bench to help out on Morgan.

But the Gophers also lacked a post presence on the glass last time. Michigan State grabbed 45 rebounds compared to Minnesota's 25, a difficult deficit for any team to overcome.

If Minnesota (12-4, 2-1 Big Ten) loses the battle of the boards, it likely will lose. But, more important, the Gophers would adversely affect their chances of entering the NCAA tourney bubble.

INDIANA 65, MINNESOTA 60: With just under 30 seconds to go Thursday, Minnesota was down by three points, but freshman sharpshooter Blake Hoffarber, the Big Ten's best 3-point shooter, was sitting on the bench. Minnesota's Lawrence McKenzie missed a 3-pointer to tie the game, but it shouldn't have come down to that.

The Hoosiers turned the ball over 26 times, and their stud freshman, Eric Gordon, finished with 12 points, after entering with a 23-point average.

But Minnesota missed its best opportunity to beat an NCAA Tournament-worthy opponent because it couldn't hit its free throws. Going 11-for-21 against the No. 9 team in the country doesn't cut it.


IN FOCUS: Minnesota is playing well at a time when other Big Ten squads are clearly struggling. Michigan State, the No. 6 squad that lost to lowly Iowa on Jan. 12, proved that the league has plenty of parity. Minnesota nearly beat Michigan State at East Lansing Jan. 5 by playing aggressively against Drew Neitzel, who only scored four points. And they also introduced Breslin Arena's crowd to the art of the foul, drawing 18 infractions, including a couple of key charges, on the Spartans. And Raymar Morgan (31 points) and Kalin Lucas (17 points) were the only two double-digit scorers for Michigan State. If Minnesota can trap and double Morgan effectively, which is easier said than done, it has a good shot at walking away with a win. But the Gophers can't fall behind by 13 points the way they did Jan. 5 if they expect to leave Williams Arena with a victory.


  • C Spencer Tollackson has been working on his free throws with Minnesota's coaching staff all season. His improved work ethic is obvious — he lost 20 pounds from last year. So it's odd that he's only made four of 22 in the team's four losses. He's not athletic enough to create a lot of shots in the paint, so he needs to take advantage of his easiest opportunity to score.

  • G Blake Hoffarber needs to work on scoring off the dribble. Although he shoots nearly 49 percent from 3-point range, teams are beginning to play up on him, which is forcing him to use his dribble more often. He's been most successful this season when he's been able to get his feet set before taking a 3-point shot. But teams are trying to stop him from doing that, and they're having some success because Hoffarber is reluctant to put the ball on the ground.

  • G Al Nolen has more than exceeded expectations this season for the Gophers. Some didn't think he'd be good enough to get on the court, but he's currently leading the Big Ten in steals with 2.7 per game. But he's shown his youth on the road by turning the ball over in tough games this season. His 15-to-10 assist-to-turnover ratio during the team's four losses, however, proves that he's learning how to distribute the ball in spite of his mistakes. It's also a sign of his confidence and ability to remain calm.

    PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — F Dan Coleman, F Damian Johnson, C Spencer Tollackson, G Lawrence McKenzie, G Lawrence Westbrook. Key Subs — G Al Nolen, G Blake Hoffarber.


    Michigan State 65, Minnesota 59

    Minnesota 82, Northwestern 63

    Minnesota 76, Penn State 73

    Indiana 65, Minnesota 60


    vs. Michigan State, Sunday, Jan. 20

    at Ohio State, Saturday, Jan. 26

    at Michigan, Thursday, Jan. 31

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