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Since we last saw the Gophers, these teams have gone in opposite directions.
Minnesota started 3-0 in the conference, but a tough stretch of games showed that the Gophers aren't quite Big Ten champion good enough: loss at Indiana (fine), home loss vs. Michigan (ehhh), loss at Northwestern (yuck) and loss at Wisconsin (ehhh). Minnesota has since rebounded with home wins against Nebraska and Iowa (barely), but they clearly aren't playing with the same confidence as they did on New Year's Eve.
But coming into this one, MSU is a bit shorthanded. Gary Harris (back spasms) and Travis Trice (head) are question marks for this game and, in my opinion, very big question marks. Without the pair, MSU is down to five players among its typical rotation. Whatever happens, we'll probably see a bit more Russell Byrd.
As for the Gophers, this is still a very highly-regarded team: No. 10 in KenPom with the No. 7 offense.
They have an eFG% of 51.2 percent (No. 65), shooting 35.4 percent on 3s (No. 98) and 50.5 percent on 2s (No. 64). Those numbers aren't eye-popping, but Minnesota is the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the country at an incredible 46.9 percent rate. Against MSU in the first meeting, the Gophers grabbed 46.7 percent, but had just 11 second-chance points. Trevor Mbakwe's OR% is 17.2 percent, which is No. 11 in the nation.
Andre Hollins leads the way with 14.2 points, 3.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds with an offensive rating of 116.0 (No. 205) and a usage rate of 25.0. Rodney Williams (12.0 points, 5.6 rebounds), Austin Hollins (11.1 points, 3.5 rebounds), Joe Coleman (10.0 points, 4.0 rebounds) also average double figure scoring. Mbakwe is right behind with 9.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks).
Tubby Smith loves to use the bench, but it has been shorted, and should be. Eight players average more than 10 minutes, but that drops to seven in conference play.
A big problem during this rough stretch has been turnovers. The Gophers are dead last in the Big Ten with a 21.5 turnover rate in conference play, including an opposing steal rate of 13.1 percent. The Spartans will have to have quick hands, and it could turn into some fast-break points.
Defensively, KenPom has this as the No. 31 team, with opponents shooting 32.7 percent on 3s (No. 133) and 43.4 percent on 2s (No. 50). That defense drops to No. 7 in the Big Ten in conference play. What is so odd is that, despite being No. 1 at offensive rebounding, the Gophers are No. 277 in allowing offensive rebounds. MSU grabbed 39 percent of its misses in the first meeting.
I think a big key in this game will be Adreian Payne. He scored four points and had seven rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench in the first meeting, as Denzel Valentine was starting in the first game without Brandan Kearney. Since then, Payne has added his outside shooting and is a real offensive threat. I imagine Payne will play more than 30 minutes, and MSU's defensive rebounding should (has to) improve from the first meeting.
Harris and Trice played 34 and 24 minutes, respectively, in the first meeting, and I'm guessing both will play fewer in this game. Denzel Valentine is coming off a great performance against Illinois, and he's going to be a key player in this one.
I think the difference in this game is going to be the rebounding, plain and simple. I know total rebounds are a kind of useless stat, but it's not a coincidence the Gophers are the only team to outrebound MSU in a game this season. MSU cannot allow the Gophers to grab nearly half their misses. Payne is going to have to give up trying to block the 3 he has no chance at getting to and crash the defensive glass.
KenPom predicts a 66-65 MSU win, giving the Spartans a 53 percent chance of winning.
If at least Harris can play a decent amount, I'm picking MSU in a close one. If neither Harris nor Trice can play, I'm going with the Gophers. If MSU is going to keep pace with Indiana and Michigan, they have to have this one, but it's going to be tough, given the circumstances.