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Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinal Preview: Minnesota

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With their ticket to the big dance punched, Michigan State looks to pour on a little gravy

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan State vs Penn State Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Was...was that a blowout? Egads that was fun. It really is remarkable what this group can do when they are locked in.

Now that they have claimed their spot in the NCAA Tournament, it’s time to add a little more oomph to the resume and push for a higher seed.

Their quarterfinal opponent, Minnesota, has similar aspirations and will not take MSU for granted after losing to them twice this season.


The Basics

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Numbers

  • Record: 23-8 (11-7 B1G)
  • Best Win: @ #24 Maryland (RPI: 24), 89-75
  • Worst Loss: @ Penn State (RPI: 93), 50-52

Last Five Games

  • 3/5 — @ Wisconsin, L 49-66
  • 3/2 — vs Nebraska, W 88-73
  • 2/25 — vs Penn State, W 81-71
  • 2/22 — @ #24 Maryland, 89-75
  • 2/19 — vs Michigan, W 83-78 (OT)

Prior to their loss to Wisconsin in the season finale, Minnesota was rolling. They had won eight straight conference games, including wins over Michigan, Indiana and Maryland and with only two of them coming by less than nine points.

Led by a balanced offense featuring four (nearly five) players averaging double-digit points per game, the Gophers clearly found a system that worked down the stretch.

What makes that streak even more impressive is the fact they had lost five straight before that run and were, at one point, 3-6 in conference play. Big Ten Coach of the Year Richard Pitino deserves a ton of credit for keeping his team positive and engaged after a series of tough losses (the last four of that streak came by an average of 4.25 points) but those days are way back in the rearview mirror.

Now riding high even after the loss to Wisconsin, this team has its sights set on making noise in the postseason.

Gophers To Know

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Nate Mason was the Gophers’ best player all season, but he was actually fairly quiet against MSU. In the two meetings, the All-Big Ten First Teamer was able to score (16 ppg) and rebound (4 rpg) but wasn’t overly efficient (38% FG) and couldn’t hit from deep at all (22% 3PT).

The most concerning aspect for Gopher fans, however, had to be how little he shared the ball. Mason averaged 5.1 assists per game this year, but only 2.5 per game against the Spartans.

Michigan State is not exactly known for their perimeter defense, but they did a good job of turning Mason and uber-talented freshman Amir Coffey into volume scorers. It will be interesting to see if they can do so again on the second day of a back-to-back.

If the guards are a half-step slow in their defense, the looks might be easier and more readily available than either of these Gophers are used to. Regardless, these two have to play more efficient basketball and make the Spartans pay when they get those decent looks. If they do so, look out.

How Does MSU Match Up

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan State vs Penn State Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Mason and Coffey are great, but Miles Bridges is the biggest factor in this game for either team. If you’re looking for proof, just check out the box scores, namely the rebound margin.

In the game without Bridges, MSU was -7 on the glass and had to pull off a miracle comeback to steal a one-point OT win. When Bridges did play, the Spartans were +13 and had a dominated in an 18-point home win.

The offensive key will be, as always, not settling for deep shots and driving to the hoop. I’ve spent far too many words on my distaste for Bridges’ quick-trigger three’s but it is especially important for him to get to the rack in this one.

The Gophers biggest advantage lies in the frontcourt where Reggie Lynch (6’10”), Eric Curry (6’9”), Jordan Murphy (6’6”) and Bakary Konate (6’11”) all have the size to cause trouble. With the exception of Murphy’s absurd 12-point 21-rebound showing in game one, the Spartans did a good job of negating that, but Miles driving into the lane is still crucial.

None of those players have the combination of footspeed, length and explosion that Miles does (few do) and by driving he can pick up fouls and create easy baskets for himself and Nick Ward. Settling for three’s that don’t come in the rhythm of the offense will only bail the defense out and keep MSU from getting the easier looks they need to win this game.

Prediction

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan State vs Penn State Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, MSU fans saw what they have been waiting for all season. They saw a team playing with focus, passion and smarts. They saw a normally turnover-prone group hold onto the ball and get real live contributions from the bench.

Basically, they saw a team that looked like it had finally turned the corner it had been oh so close to turning against Illinois and Maryland.

While I’m not fully convinced that’s what happened — after all, this was a Penn State team that had played an overtime game just 24 hours earlier — it was a very reassuring step in the right direction. The question is will it be enough to overcome a rested and rolling Minnesota team?

Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Bridges is a matchup nightmare but the Gophers have size MSU can’t match and were playing very good basketball not long ago. Also, I picked them to win the entire tournament on The Only Podcast, so I can’t bail just yet.

The combination of MSU fatigue and Gopher revenge leads to Minnesota getting the win by the slimmest of margins.

Minnesota 78 MSU 77