Act II, Curtains Open: Minnesota Preview

Your MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS vs. the MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
THE JACK BRESLIN STUDENT EVENTS CENTER, EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN
FRIDAY, 4:00 PM ET
TV: Big Ten Network
ONLINE RADIO FEED: Spartan Sports Network

So, in case you've somehow managed to mentally block it out, pre-conference play didn't go so well for our Spartans.  Without rehashing all the gory details, some combination of (1) offseason/early-season injuries, (2) an inexperienced bench, (3) an extremely tough schedule (3rd toughest in the country among major-conference teams according to KenPom), and (4) a plain-old lack of offensive cohesion led to a distinctly disappointing 8-4 nonconference mark.

It's painfully clear at this point that Michigan State is not a top-tier national title contender.  It remains an open question, though, whether the Spartans are, or can become, a second-tier team that, while not a heavy favorite to do so, has the potential to make a Final Four run.  In other words, are they at least as good this season as they've been the last two seasons?

The way the conference schedule sets up, I think we'll learn quite a bit about the team pretty quickly.  The first four Big Ten games are comprised of two home games vs. ranked opponents (Minnesota, Wisconsin) and two away games vs. less-formidable-but-still-pretty-darn-dangerous foes (Northwestern, Penn State).  I can easily envision MSU being 4-0 after those games are played, and I can easily envision them being 1-3.

The week-plus break since the Texas game is yielding some fairly-predictable-but-nevertheless-encouraging reports.  From Rexrode: 

[Denny] Schwarze also tells me that Derrick Nix and Korie Lucious are getting good reviews for their practice performances. Also, that Draymond Green is going to play the 4 more and do more work around the basket than on the perimeter. A good move, IMO. It sounds like Izzo is pleased with what he's getting out of these practices, so we'll see if there's a transfer to game performance on Friday against a Minnesota team very capable of winning in Breslin.

More on the KLs:

The Spartans have been hobbled by injuries, but with the extended break, MSU is starting to get healthy. Lucas (Achilles) and Korie Lucious (ankle) are improving and getting ready for the conference season. "I think at the beginning of the season, I had to slow down more and be more of a smart player because there was a lot of stuff I couldn't do," Lucas said. "Now, I feel like I'm starting to turn the corner. I'm starting to feel more healthy - not 100 percent yet - but I'm starting to get my explosiveness back."

Izzo said that Lucious is [still (?)] recovering from his sprained ankle that nagged him in the Texas game, but has gotten better this week.

And the coach's take:

"I don't think our backs are against the wall," Izzo said. "We needed the practice and the practices have gone very, very well. And I don't say that very, very often."

The most concrete news there is that Draymond will stick more to the 4 spot.  That should give the team more balance in terms of perimeter and interior offense.  But it also puts quite a bit of pressure on Keith Appling to play reliably as the fourth guard.  All things considered, I think this is as good a shot as anything in terms of personnel/strategic adjustments.

Moving on to tomorrow's game in particular . . .

Golden Gopher Overview

Minnesota enters the game with a pretty attractive résumé.  The Gophers' 11-2 record includes two neutral-court wins against KenPom top-25 teams in North Carolina and West Virginia.  The two losses came against Virginia (at home) and Wisconsin (on the road, in a game that was tight down the stretch).

KenPom isn't that high on the Gophers, ranking them just 58th at the moment, vs. their 14/13 positions in the two human polls.  That's partially a function of the fact that Minnesota hasn't blown many opponents out.  Only 4 of the team's 9 wins vs. opponents ranked below #100 by KenPom have been by more than 12 points--with zero wins by 20+ points.  To be fair, though, the Gophers have yet to really be a full strength this season.  Devoe Joseph missed the first 6 games of the year due to a violation of team rules, while Al Nolen later missed five games with a foot injury.  Nolen has been back for the last two games, albeit at reduced minutes/effectiveness.

Per usual, Tubby Smith has a lot of parts in play.  Eleven Minnesota players are averaging 9 minutes or more per game.  The scoring has been balanced, with Blake Hoffarber, Trevor Mbakwe, Joseph, and Ralph Sampson all averaging between 12 and 14 points/game.  Mbakwe has been a beast on the boards, averaging 9.9 rebounds/game, while erstwhile 3-point specialist Hoffarber has blossomed as a passer, averaging 5.6 assists/game.

When Minnesota Has the Ball

Minnesota has the 48th most efficient offense in the country.  The team's strength has been on the inside: converting 2-pointers (52.6%), grabbing offensive rebounds (39.7 OffReb%), and getting to the free throw line (47.6 FT).  Trevor Mbakwe, who finally made his Gopher debut this season after dealing with seemingly interminable legal issues, has led the way on all those fronts.  Mbakwe is converting over 60% of this 2-point attempts, grabbing 12.6% of available offensive rebounds, and sporting a free throw rate near 100 (for reference, anything over 40 is good).  Mbakwe has replaced Damian Johnson's offensive contributions, and then some.  (On defense, of course, Johnson is basically irreplaceable.)

Sampson (FTR around 50 with a FT% above 70), Colton Iverson (OffReb% over 15), and potential NBA-lottery-pick Rodney Williams (FG% over 60, OffReb% around 10) give the Gophers a lot of options around the basket.  MSU will need defensive contributions from all its big men.  Draymond Green will face the toughest task, matching up with Mbakwe at the 4 spot; he'll need to avoid overly-aggressive defensive plays that could lead to foul trouble early.

The Gophers' weaknesses are the on the perimeter and may relate somewhat to the absences of Joseph and Nolen at different points.  They turn the ball over on 20% of their possessions, and they're only shooting 34% from beyond the arc.  The trick for MSU will be to force as many 3-point attempts as possible from players other than Joseph (.400 3pt%) and Hoffarber (.391).

Like MSU, Minnesota relies on a well-structure offense to score baskets; 64% of their made FGs this season have been assisted.  MSU will need to play disciplined defense and force someone to try to manufacture a shot or take a tough shot from the perimeter late in the shot clock.

When MSU Has the Ball

The Gophers rank only 74th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency.  They've really only exhibited one real strength on defense: interior defense.  Nor surprisingly given all the height and interior athleticism Tubby Smith has at this disposal, Minnesota ranks 13th in the nation in block percentage and is allowing its opponents to convert only 41% of their 2-point attempts. Mbakwe, Sampson, and Iverson all rank in the top 200 nationally in individual block%.

Meanwhile, the Gophers haven't forced as many turnovers as past editions of the team (20.6 Def TO%), and they've been surprisingly vulnerable on the boards (30.6 OffReb%).  MSU will put up some tough 2-point attempts in this game; they need to make sure they're in position to grab the offensive board when those attempts go awry.

Minnesota plays some 2-3 zone, which has contributed to the team's opponents taking a full 40 percent of their FGA from beyond the arc.  The MSU players will need to bounce back from their horrific outside shooting performance vs. Texas and knock down something approaching 40% of their 3-point attempts.

The Bottom Line

KenPom actually predicts MSU to win this game by double digits, 75-65 in 70 possessions.  I expect it to be much closer than that.  Durrell Summers may be the key player on offense, at least in terms of scoring output; he's the guy who can get good 3-point looks against a zone and crash the offensive glass amidst the Minnesota trees inside.  Garrick Sherman is a key factor inside; he'll need to play solid straight-up defense against Sampson and Iverson and keep them occupied on the other end with a few solid offensive moves around the basket.

Beyond that, it's a cliché to talk about needing a "team effort" but I think it absolutely applies in this game.  Minnesota doesn't have a single scoring leader to focus on, so the defensive game plan will be force tough shots across the board.

On offense, Minnesota forces its opponents to create scoring looks off the pass (63% of opponents' made field goals have been assisted).  MSU will need to make smart passes to create good looks the Gopher big men can't get their hands on, while avoiding the turnover issues that haunted the team through basically all of the pre-conference schedule.  Turn it over on 25%+ of possessions and a loss is almost guaranteed, keep that percentage under 20 and things are very likely fall in place for a win.  So, same deal as always, with a blank conference-record slate to work from.

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