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Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinal Preview: Michigan State vs. Minnesota



The Gophers earned a third matchup with Your Spartans by handily dispatching Penn State last night, 76-55. That final score is somewhat deceptively impressive, as Talor Battle (37 minutes, 10 points, 3-10 shooting) was slowed by injury. Nonetheless, this was clearly Good Minnesota that showed up in Indianapolis yesterday: the Gophers shot the ball very well (67.0 eFG), were extremely efficient on offense (126.7 offensive efficiency), and didn't turn the ball over much (13.3 TO%). Conversely, they didn't do a good job on the boards (20.0% OR), though Penn State is (was? Can we move to the past tense at this point?) one of the better rebounding teams in the conference.

Much has been made of Minnesota's improvement in the past month. With one very notable exception (an uuuuugly 83-55 loss at Crisler Arena), the Gophers have looked good: decisive wins against Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa, a close win at Illinois, and one extremely close loss against Purdue (in the Robbie Hummel injury game). Ken Pomeroy's computer still likes Minnesota quite a lot (#28 nationally, only 5 spots below MSU, and the highest-ranked 12-lost team by far), and while most NCAA tournament projections have the Gophers on the outside looking in, a win tonight would do wonders for their tournament hopes.

Minnesota is one of the only teams in the conference that can match MSU in depth and athleticism. Even after taking the ineligible Al Nolen out of the equation, Minnesota has nine players who average more than 10 minutes per game; they're led at the top by Lawrence Westbrook, who leads the team with 12.8 ppg (56.7 eFG), including 15 and 16 points, respectively, in the two games against MSU. Devoe Joseph has taken most of Nolen's minutes, and has acquitted himself quite well, with double-digit scoring efforts against Indiana, MSU, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Penn State. Blake Hoffarber has been dynamite against pretty much everyone but MSU: he's averaging 10.4 ppg, and is shooting 48.4% from 3 (69.4% eFG!), but he's been a total non-factor against State, with 4 points at the Breslin Center and 6 at The Barn. Damian Johnson (who was robbed in the all-conference awards) leads the Gophers defensively, ranking in the top three in the league in both steals and blocks; he and Ralph Sampson III (1.7 bpg, 7.8 block %) severely limit opportunities for interior scoring. As KJ wrote in his recap of the second game:

For the game, the Spartans shot just 35.1% on 2-point attempts. That was largely a credit to the Minnesota interior defense, led by the incomparable Damian Johnson who posted 5 blocks to go with 3 steals. Ralph Sampson III somehow ended up with only one blocked shot in the box score. But it was a monstrous block--snatching the ball out of Durrell Summers' hands on an attempted offensive putback.

Interior scoring, of course, is what MSU used to such good effect to blow out Michigan in the first half on Sunday. (Not enough prepositions in that sentence, methinks.) We'll need better performances from the guards to compenstate.

Which, like, hooray, because our best outside shooter will be missing the game. Rexrode reports that Chris Allen traveled with the team to Indianapolis, and is likely to play on Saturday if we can get through Minnesota. Unfortunately, he won't be playing tonight, meaning that the good performances we've been expecting from Korie Lucious and Durrell Summers would be mighty useful right-freaking-now.

The offensive keys to the game clearly will be crashing the offensive glass and not turning the ball over. (Those are the keys to all of our games, no?) Anyway:

  • Minnesota is allowing its opponents to rebound 32.1% of their misses -- only 8th best in the conference -- while MSU rebounds 40.1% of our misses, which is best in the league. It's surprising that Minnesota isn't better on the defensive glass, given their size, but we need to take advantage of the weakness. In our previous two games against the Gophers, our OR% was 40 and 33.3; continuing that trend will surely portend good things.
  • Similarly, holding onto the ball is always a challenge for our heroes, but we've done a fairly good job against the Gophers this season: 16.4 TO% in both of the games; any higher and we almost certainly would have lost the second game. One thing has changed: Minnesota has usually played strong man-to-man defense, but over the past month they've shifted to a 2-3 zone look. Our success against the zone has been mixed, but then again, our success on the turnover front against all kinds of defenses on the turnover front has been mixed.

KenPom sees this game as a 69-68 Michigan State victory. As Minnesota fans have noted, Tubby Smith is in the midst of a rather stunning drought against Tom Izzo: Smith 2-11 overall against Izzo, and his last victory against MSU came with Kentucky in the 2003 BasketBowl (man, that was awful). Izzo seems to have put a greater emphasis this year on the conference tournament than in previous seasons, but this is a talented, well coached team we're facing, and one that must win this game in order to have any shot at the Tournament. Can we overcome that, and the loss of Chris Allen, to pull this one out? An effort similar to the one the team brought against Michigan would certainly go a long way.