The Spartans have enough talent to beat most teams in the Big Ten. But of grave concern is Minnesota's continued challenges on the boards. Michigan State, the Big Ten's best rebounding team, grabbed 49 rebounds to Minnesota's 27.
The Gophers have been outrebounded in four of their last five games. When teams like High Point are challenging your team for rebounds, then you know there's a problem.
"Guys gotta get more rebounds, just gotta rebound the ball more and if you're in the game and you know that's the No. 1 area we've been talking about and you don't have, that means that you didn't really go after the ball probably like you should," Smith said.
The Buckeyes aren't much better than Minnesota on the boards, but 7-footer B.J. Mullens and Big Ten blocks leader Dallas Lauderdale offer their own brand of physicality.
Last season, Smith said the only way to get better on the boards was through recruiting. So he brought in 6-11 freshman post players Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III, both of whom have fathers who played pro ball.
But the additional height hasn't been enough to give the Gophers the boost on the glass that Smith anticipated. The Gophers have averaged 34.5 rebounds against their Division I opponents this season, less than a one rebound difference from last season.
Without improvement in that area, it will be hard for the Gophers to rebound from their tough loss against the Spartans and continue to build the momentum they acquired from reeling off 12 straight wins.
MICHIGAN STATE 70, MINNESOTA 58: An undefeated No. 21 Gophers (12-1, 0-1 Big Ten) team had plenty of confidence entering their Big Ten opener against the No. 10 Spartans (10-2, 1-0 Big Ten) at home. And they'd already beaten a top-10 opponent, Louisville, to earn a national ranking.
But the Gophers couldn't hold off the Spartans on the glass. Minnesota grabbed 23 rebounds, while the Spartans scored 21 points off of 23 offensive rebounds.
The Gophers were down by one, 30-29, at halftime and shot a respectable 40 percent from the floor. Still, the disparity on the boards proved insurmountable.
Al Nolen led the Gophers with 14 points, while Lawrence Westbrook added 11 and Blake Hoffarber scored eight.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual starters — G Lawrence Westbrook, G Al Nolen, F Damian Johnson, F Ralph Sampson III, C Colton Iverson. Key subs — G Blake Hoffarber, F Paul Carter, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, G/F Travis Busch, G Devoe Joseph, G Devron Bostick.
IN FOCUS: The Gophers host the Buckeyes to start 2009 in a matchup of perhaps two of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes are without junior David Lighty — arguably their best player — who is out at least a month with a broken bone in his foot. Combined, the two teams entered conference play 21-1.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think they've been working really good together. I like their chemistry and the fact that they communicate really well. They've been getting in foul trouble, so it would be great if they can take care of that." — coach Tubby Smith on the tandem of Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III, who had combined for 43 blocked shots going into the week.
Minnesota 70, Louisville 64
Minnesota 80, Southeastern Louisiana 71
Minnesota 82, High Point 56
Michigan State 70, Minnesota 58
vs. Ohio State, Saturday, Jan. 3
at Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 8
vs. Penn State, Sunday, Jan. 11