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Preview: Michigan State Spartans vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers



Gopher bullets:

  • Nonconference record of 9-3.  Lost to Portland, Texas A&M, and Miami (Florida).  Beat Butler.  (All four games away from home.)
  • Conference record of 3-1.  Beat Penn State and Ohio State at home and Iowa on the road.  Lost to Purdue on the road.
  • 11 Gopher players are averaging at least 10 minutes per game.  (Includes Devron Bostick, who's only played in 7 games.)  No player is averaging more than 26 minutes per game.
  • Lawrence Westbrook leads team in scoring at 13.6 points per game on a .570/.397/.744 shooting line.
  • Blake Hoffarber is averaging 12.2 points per game on a .630/.521/.833 shooting line.  Hoffarber has made 16 of 27 three-point attempts in Big Ten play.
  • Damian Johnson is averaging 10.7 points per game on a .566/.353/.660 shooting line.  He's even more proficient on defense, ranking in top 50 nationally in both block and steal percentages.
  • KenPom has the Gophers at #11 in the country, on the strength of the nation's 5th most efficient defense.  The team ranks just 70th in adjusted offensive efficiency.

Two teams in the Big Ten rank in the top 20 nationally in defensive turnover percentage.  MSU plays each of those teams twice.  Tomorrow night's game is the first of those four games.  So here goes nothing on the beating-the-turnover-issues thing.

Minnesota ranks 3rd in the nation in both defensive turnover percentage and steal percentage.  Six different Gopher players have individual steal percentages of 3.0+, led by Al Nolen at 5.7 and Damion Johnson at 5.1 (i.e., if both those guys are on the floor, one of them will steal the ball every 10th time the opposition comes down the floor).  Given Minnesota's depth, they'll be able to keep the pressure on MSU for 40 minutes if the Spartans don't show they can beat it for easy buckets.

Minnesota has a record of 9-1 when they force their opponent to turn the ball over on at least 25 percent of its possessions--vs. a record of 3-3 when they don't.  The good news?  MSU turned the ball over on only 19.2% and 23.0% of possesions in its two match-ups with Minnesota last season, so Tom Izzo presumably has a decent game plan against Tubby Smith's trapping full-court pressure.  It's just a matter of executing it.

Beyond minimizing turnovers, MSU will need to crash the glass and attack the basket to get to the free throw line, taking advantage of Minnesota's two four-factor weaknesses.  The attacking the basket part will be a little tricky, though, as two legitimate shot-blocking threats in Damian Johnson and Ralph Sampson III (who's coming back from an ankle injury).  Raymar Morgan, Draymond Green, and Delvon Roe will need to pick their spots to attack the basket in the halfcourt offense.  (You'll recall that Morgan had a solid game despite shooting just 4-11 vs. the Gophers in the one regular season match-up he was healthy for last season: 10 rebounds and zero turnovers.)

Minnesota also allows/forces opponents to take quite a few 3-pointers, so a continuation of MSU's recent shooting proficiency from beyond the arc (.350+ in 8 of the last 9 games) would be helpful.  Can Chris Allen (11-19 from 3-point range in his last 5 games) keep it going?

Offensively, Minnesota lacks a go-to offensive leader.  Lawrence Westbrook has shot the ball very efficiently, but doesn't contribute much else (1.7 assists and 0.3 offensive rebounds per game).  Damian Johnson has been the most versatile Gopher offensively, but isn't the kind of player that's going create his own shot most of the time.  The key is to avoid defensive lapses leading to easy baskets (or open Blake Hoffarber 3-point looks) and force Minnesota to make contested shots.  The Gophers have lost 4 of the 5 games in which they've been held to an effective field goal percentage of 50.0 or below.

KenPom predicts a 74-70 MSU win in a 74-possession game.  With Purdue picking up its second conference loss tonight, this game represents a chance for MSU to establish itself as the clear leader through the first quarter of the conference schedule.  To do so, the team will have to demonstrate that this season's turnover issues are of the correctable, non-chronic variety (i.e., the 2008 variety rather than the 2007 variety).

P.S. 32 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists for Evan Turner in his third game back from a fairly serious back injury.  Barring a reinjury, I'm going to say that the Big Ten front office can go ahead and send the Player of the Year trophy out to be engraved right now.