It is upon us, the most grueling and daunting stretch of games that any college basketball player can face: The Big Ten Regular season.
Fresh off a less than impressive win against Oakland and coming off a particularly tough non conference schedule due to some early game travel and some later game injuries, the Spartans are headed into Williams Arena in Minneapolis to take on the 12-1 Golden Gophers of Minnesota.
The game tips off at 9pm ET (ESPN2) and pits Tom Izzo against the OTHER Pitino for the 4th time.
- Record: 12-1 (2-0 away)
- Best Win: Georgia Southern (RPI:148), 86-49
- Worst Loss: Florida State (RPI: 15), 67-75
Last Five Games
- 12/23 - Arkansas State, W 82-75
- 12/14 - LIU Brooklyn , W 76-66
- 12/11 - Northern Illinois, W 77-57
- 12/9 - Georgia Southern, W 86-49
- 12/6 - NJIT, W 7428
Richard Pitino has the Golden Gophers entering conference play with 4 more wins then they had in all of 2015 so you know they are happy in Minneapolis. At 12-1, Minnesota shares the top of the Big Ten standings with Maryland after reeling of 6 straight wins. Granted all of those were at home and only one has come against a team in the top 100 in RPI (Arkansas State comes in at #41 according to CBSSports.com), it is still going to be a tough test for a beat up Michigan State team
This is a complete flip from where we were the last time Michigan State was playing a team from the Big Ten. When we last saw the conference schedule we were lifting the Big Ten Title and Minnesota was wrapping up an atrocious 2-16 record, finishing above only Rutgers at 1-17 (that one win came against Minnesota, btw). The Spartan’s roll into Minneapolis a 5 point underdog as the tables have turned with a tough non-conference schedule for MSU left them with 5 losses and a shallow bench due to injuries.
Gophers to Know
- G #2 Nate Mason (6’2” 190, Junior) - 13.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 5.5 apg, 44.8% 3PT
- G #1 Dupree McBrayer (6’5” 190, Sophomore) - 12.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 3.5 apg, 42.1% 3PT
- F #3 Jordan Murphy (6’6” 240, Sophomore) - 10.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 0.9 bpg, 4.70% FG
The Golden Gophers are led by Junior Nate Mason. He is leading the team in both points and assists per game as well as showing a lot more leadership on the court. He is coming off of a sophomore season where he averaged over 30 minutes a game and 13.8 points which is great but you can see the improvement from last year as he has a lower turnover and personal foul average this year and has increase his FG and 3PT percentage significantly as well as adding a full assist and half a rebound to his averages.
While Sophomore Dupree McBrayer has been the heavy lifter points wise for the last stretch of games, one player to look out for is going to be the freshman big man Amir Coffey. Coming in at 6’8” he has the ability (if he plays physical enough) to give Big Puddin’ a test in the middle. Not to mention he is shooting nearly 75% from the line, a number any Spartan fan would want to have right about now.
Speaking of bigs, the Spartans should be wary of 6’10” center, Reggie Lynch. Coming into the game averaging 8.5 points and 6.2 rebounds, the big man could cause a bit of an issue to a Spartan front court that we all know lacks in size. The issue with Lynch voiced from many Gopher fans is that he does have a tendency to get in some early foul trouble. Look for the Spartans to take advantage of that and pray they wished for a higher FT percentage for Christmas.
How The Spartans Match Up
Another game, another Miles Bridges in street clothes. The freshman was listed as “very, very, very, very, very doubtful” so we are going to have to ford the river once more.
In the absence of Bridges, we have seen the emergence of the other Freshman, namely Nick Ward, AKA Big Puddin’, AKA the two time Big Ten Freshman of the week. Ward has been averaging 13.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, and 1.9 bpg but something that is even more exciting to see is what Cassius Winston has been able to do over the last 5 games, averaging 11.8 points with 9.0 assists and only 2.0 turnovers. This is a huge step for the freshman that has been hyped as “the best passer for MSU since Magic Johnson.” He is currently leading the Big Ten with 6.0 assists per game and that number should only climb with him on the pace he is.
After those two...your guess is as good as ours. We have seen a major shift in who is getting minutes and who is getting shots for the Spartans. My money is on Harris seeing some extended minutes in this game as he is averaging 14.2 points on 25.4 mpg over the last five. You would have to think that Izzo is going to need to combat some of the size down low and get Matt Van Dyk some extended time too. Van Dyk started the season picking up only 6 minutes a game through the first nine games of the season. He has since proved himself as a go to for Izzo though, averaging over 18 minutes and 6.3 rebounds per game in the last 4 games.
This is going to be a tough matchup for the Spartans if for no other reason but sheer momentum. The Gophers are excited about the potential of this season and they are riding that wave into the big ten opener. It is going to be critical for Michigan State to try and take the crowd out of the game early (as well as hit free throws late) if they want to pull this one out.
As is the case with most of this season, as go the freshman so goes the game. This is going to be a big opportunity for Ward and Winston to make a name for themselves on the Big Ten stage. While the cast around them might be changing and fluctuating (until Miles returns) they are going to need to be the rock for Michigan State. If Winston has the vision we all know he does tonight and Ward is physical with the big men from Minnesota we might just be able to be 1-0 in conference by the time this night is over.
The key for the Spartans is going to be out hustling the Gophers. I sound like a broken record talking about how the Spartans are an undersized team compared to their opponent but it is once again the case here, but if Michigan State is able to get those scrappy plays off the glass and keep the turnovers in check, they will be able to show why they are still only a 5 point dog on the road to a team that has only lost one game to the #20 team in the country.
I see this being a close first half but the Spartans will be able to pull it off in the end.
MSU 67 - Minnesota 61