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Go Big or Stay Home: Minnesota Preview

Big Ten Network (Gus Johnson, Jim Jackson)
ONLINE RADIO FEED: Spartan Sports Network

So good news: Michigan State is playing a team that has even less backcourt depth than MSU does.  Devoe Joseph's transfer at the end of December and Al Nolen's broken foot, suffered at the end of January, have left Minnesota without a true point guard.  While four-guard lineups have been en vogue for some time among mid-major teams, Tubby Smith has instituted the much less frequently seen four-post-player lineup.  Suddenly-thrust-into-the-role point guard Blake Hoffraber is joined in the starting lineup by the 6'7" Rodney Williams, the 6'8" Trevor Mbakwe, the 6'10" Colton Iverson, and the 6'11" Ralph Sampson.  That's an NBA-sized lineup.

The results for Minnesota have not, however, been indicative of a higher level of play.  Minnesota won the first game after Nolen's injury (home vs. Northwestern), but has dropped five of the six games they've played since then--losing at home to Ohio State and Illinois and on the road to Purdue, Indiana, and Penn State.  The team's only win during that stretch was in Iowa City.  The losses have dropped a team that was ranked in the top 25 for much of the season down into the same neighborhood of the tournament bubble that MSU is currently inhabiting.

The Gophers have struggled on both sides of the ball over the last six games.  On offense, the team has, consistent with its size, remained solid on the boards and at getting to the free throw line.  The ball-handling and shooting numbers have been the issue.  Hoffarber is averaging 3.1 turnovers/game since taking over as the primary ball-handler, while Mbakwe and Sampson haven't been able to put together solid offensive performances on the same night.  Note, though, that Hoffarber has maintained a 3-point shooting percentage just below 40% over that stretch [20-52].

Defensively, the team hasn't been creating turnovers (not a surprise given the lack of guard depth) and has allowed several opponents to grab 35%+ of offensive rebounding opportunities (more surprising--although the team has been much better on the offensive glass than the defensive glass all season).

From the Barn sums up the Gophers' predicament thusly:

One thing that could be said about the Gophers this year is that they haven’t really lost badly to anyone.  They are generally competitive in each game they’ve been a part of.  Instead, they often find themselves losing by way of not executing.  There is the feeling of the game being completely within reach, yet the team just can’t take advantage of the opportunity to take home the victory.  This has manifested itself much more often in the latter part of the season than earlier, specifically in games against Indiana, Illinois and last night against Penn State.  The teams were basically trying to hand the game over to the Gophers, who didn’t seem interested in taking control.

Once again, Minnesota didn’t play poorly last night [against Penn State].  They shot a hefty 47% from the field, committed a "meh" 13 turnovers and, for the most part, stayed out of foul trouble.  They even had themselves in position to win in the final two minutes, owning a three-point lead, before squandering it with a traveling violation, an ill-timed three-point attempt and a throwaway out of bounds.  Seriously, all that in the final two minutes?

That sounds about right for a team that doesn't have a guard who can create off the dribble late in close games.  MSU should have a significant advantage if the game is close in the final few minutes.

That said, Minnesota still has some formidable pieces to put on the court, and Tom Izzo will have to figure out how to guard all of them.  The obvious move is to play Draymond Green at the three spot to better match up with the Gophers' size and potentially utilize the Nix/Payne/Sherman trio a little more, given the signs of life they've collectively shown over the last couple games.  The downside is that Green is more likely to get drawn outside on offense in that scenario, potentially reducing the aggressiveness near the lane he's shown of late.  (For the record: I'm still in favor of Green shooting every open three-pointer that comes his way.)  I should note that the Minnesota size advantage will be reduced somewhat (but not entirely) when they go to the bench, as all three reserves being used by Tubby Smith right now are freshman guards (including the spectacularly-named Maverick Ahanmisi).

Mbakwe was Minnesota's leading scorer with 17 points the first time these two teams met, in a game MSU won by 9.  As I recall, though, almost all of his points came either (1) in a very short stretch in the first half when Adreian Payne came in to guard him for a couple minutes or (2) very late in the game when the outcome wasn't really in question any more.  [Added: LVS notes that Mbakwe's playing time was limited due to foul trouble.]  Still, I worry about a scenario where Mbakwe is playing the three spot and Kalin Lucas ends up guarding him off MSU's automatic perimeter switches.  Even playing against Big Ten defenders, Mbakwe has continued to maintain an individual FG% figure above 60%.  One positive note is that Keith Appling and Mike Kebler are both good post defenders--relative to their size, at least.

Defensively, it sounds like Tubby has wedded himself to the 2-3 zone.  From the Barn again:

I understand the premise of Tubby’s 2-3 zone is to use our size to take away any semblance of an inside game and force teams into a lot of three-point shots, and that happened again last night.  However, when an all-conference player like Battle is having the kind of night he’s having, YOU DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO STOP HIM. Double-team him if you have to; run a box-and-one on him.  Make someone else on the team beat you, which, in all seriousness, wasn’t going to be happen.  David Jackson, Jeff Brooks and Tim Frazier are not going to beat you. I don’t know how many times Battle had an open three-point attempt, but it was a handful.  Jeff Brooks can have the freaking open three-pointers, but not Talor Battle.  That’s what sunk the Gophers in the end.

I'd expect that, if Smith stuck with the zone in that scenario, he'll definitely stick with it against an MSU team that's shown a tendency to struggle when forced to take a lot of perimeter shots.  It'll be tougher for Lucas to get to the hoop against a zone defense that feature shot-blockers on the inside.  The interior passing of the still-less-than-100% duo of Green and Delvon Roe will be key.  And, at the end of the day, MSU is going to have to make a certain number of jumpshots.  A Durrell Summers breakout game would be most welcome.  Note that Minnesota ranks in the top ten nationally both in the percentage of opponents' FGA taken from 3-point range and the percentage of opponents' made field goals that are assisted.

KenPom predicts a 70-66 Minnesota win, basically spotting the Gophers the four points for home court advantage.  A win by either team will go a long way toward solidifying a dance card.  A loss reduces the margin for error significantly but doesn't by any means push the loser off the bubble.

That's the view of KJ the Rational Analyst.  The view of KJ the Fan is that this game is MUST WIN.