Michigan State at Minnesota Preview

Do you have a lush, full mustache? Then you too can be a Minnesota head coach. - Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Spartans tip off the Big Ten schedule with a New Year's Eve tilt at The Barn.

Your MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS vs. the MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
MONDAY, DECEMBER 31st, 2012, 2:00 PM EASTERN
WILLIAMS ARENA, MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA

TV: ESPN2
RADIO: SPARTAN SPORTS NETWORK

After nine long days without basketball (the bowl game was a nice distraction, though), the Michigan State Spartans begin Big Ten conference play against a vastly improved Minnesota team from last season. The Golden Gophers are currently 12-1, with wins on a neutral court against Memphis and Stanford in the Battle 4 Atlantis, and a win at Florida State. Their only loss was by 18 against Duke, but that's certainly forgivable given the Blue Devils' prowess this year. Let's take a look at the Gophers.

FRONTCOURT

Much like Drew Neitzel was back in the day, the starting front court for Minnesota has seemingly been around for eons. Trevor Mbakwe is currently in his sixth season as a Golden Gopher of collegiate basketball after receiving a medical redshirt last season for an ACL tear. He's only started one game this season due to punishment stemming from a DUI arrest in July, but he's still the same low post threat he's ever been: he boards the heck out of the ball, and can step out and hit a 12-15 foot jumper. He's only averaged about 18 minutes a game this season, most likely due to avoid unnecessary strain on his ACL.

The uber-athletic Rodney Williams makes up the other half of the Gopher starting front court. He's seemingly learned that the three-pointer is far from his best shot, averaging one a game this year opposed to about 1.5 last season. He's added a couple aspects to his game this season, notably an improved free throw percentage (68.6%, he's never had a FT% above 60% for the season in his career) and the ability to get his team's misses (his offensive rebounding percentage is 12.1% against three seasons below 7%). He will do something fantastic like he has in past MSU-UM games, but I doubt he does something immensely stupid like he has in past years.

BACKCOURT

The Minnesota guards have made the most visible improvement over the summer, and it's helped them vault from borderline NCAA Tournament team to dark horse Big Ten contender. Let's start with sophomore Austin Hollins. While the 6'4" shooting guard hasn't shot particularly well yet this season (32.1% from three), he's very disruptive on the defensive end, stealing the ball one out of every 20 possessions (or 2.3 steals per game, whatever you prefer). You've figured it out by now, but I'll tell you anyway -- that's not good news for a turnover-prone Spartan squad.

Sophomore Andre Hollins (not related to Austin, but they are both from Memphis) is the point guard, and can catch fire. He's already recorded a 41-point game against Memphis (12-16 from the field, 5-5 from three in that one) and went 6-7 from three against against South Dakota State. He's a good shooter, but he can be streaky. The third and final starting member of the back court is 6'4" sophomore Joe Coleman. Coleman's not a sniper (3-12 from behind the arc for the year) but he will get a fair amount of steals and makes 53% of his two-pointers. Watch the back cuts please and thank you.

THE BENCH

6'11", 260 lb. sophomore Elliott Eliason started in place of Mbakwe for all but one game so far, and while he's not an offensive threat unless fouled (38% from the field, 71% from the free throw line), he's another big body for the Gophers. He's like a less dirty Colton Iverson. Speaking of big bodies, 6'10" 289 lb. Maurice Walker is one as well. He'll collect 17.5% of his team's misses, a number that would rank him in the top ten of the NCAA if he had enough minutes to qualify.

Another player that'll have to be marked is 6'2" junior Maverick Ahanmisi. He leads the Gophers in three-point percentage at 43.5%, but he's only taken 23 threes all year. Senior Julian Welch will spell Andre Hollins at the point, and while his shooting touch is a bit off this season (38% from two, 25% from three) he made 43.8% of his threes last year, so beware the regression to the mean.

TWO STATS THAT I FIND OF INTEREST

1. The Gophers' are great at offensive rebounding. In fact, they're the best team in D1 basketball in that stat, grabbing 48.9% of their misses. This aptitude hasn't translated to defensive rebounding however, where they allow opponents to recover 35.5% of their misses, good for 280th in D1.

2. Remember what I was saying about Gopher players and steals earlier? It turns out that the Gophers as a whole are good at manufacturing turnovers, creating one in about every four defensive possessions. Say it with me: "NOT. GOOD. NEWS." The only saving grace here is that Minnesota commits turnovers at a fairly decent rate as well (21.4% of the time), so the potential for a loose game is looming.

THREE THINGS MSU MIGHT WANT TO DO TO WIN THE GAME TOMORROW

- Stop the turnover flood. Obligatory.

- Sag off to stop drivers, even if it means leaving space for the three every now and then. While the potential is there for the Gophers to get very, very, hot from behind the arc, they're also a team making more than 51% of their twos while simultaneously being the best offensive rebounding team in the NCAA to date. While the Spartans may lose to a hot shooting Minnesota in the barn, they will more likely lose to a Minnesota team that gets first and second chances from point blank.

- Shake off Brandan Kearney's departure. There's really no way to define if they've done this statistically, but it'll definitely be visible. Are they lethargic? Are they casual with the ball? Are they switching on defense? Granted MSU started many games like this in November and this month while Kearney was still on the team, hopefully his departure will galvanize and not erode at the team.

Big Ten basketball begins during the last day of 2012. Get excited y'all.

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