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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: Minnesota Preview

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Michigan State Detroit Free Press-USA TODAY NETWORK

Game Info:

Where: Williams Arena, Minneapolis, Minnesota

When: 8:00pm, Dec. 28, 2020

TV/Radio: Big Ten Network/Spartan Sports Network radio

Minnesota (8-1, 1-1): No. 42 (Kenpom)

Depth Chart:

1 - Marcus Carr (6’2” jr.)
2 - Gabe Kalscheur (6’4” jr.), Jamal Mashburn Jr. (6’2” fr.)
3 - Both Gach (6’6” jr.), Tre’ Wiliams (6’5” so.)
4 - Isiah Ihnen (6’9” so.), Brandon Johnson (6’8” sr.)
5 - Liam Robbins (7’0” jr.), Eric Curry (6’9” sr.)


Fresh off an overtime victory over Iowa that saw Minnesota top 100 points (Iowa? defense? never!), the Minnesota Golden Gophers will be licking their lips as the Michigan State Spartans head to Minneapolis. Minnesota still does not run a ton of offense — the Gophers will let Carr go to work in isolation and in the pick-and-roll, they will run some cross-screening actions to get Robbins post-ups, and they will run Kalscheur and Gach off of pin-downs, flare-screens, and various double-screen actions. But despite not having a very complex offense, Minnesota can really put points up. The team’s individual players are talented, physically capable, and the Gophers have real skill and depth coming off of the bench.

Defensively, Minnesota is a bit in the doldrums (like the Spartans), but the Gophers’ “low” has not been quite as low as Michigan State’s. Minnesota has the personnel to have a high quality defense, primarily man-to-man, and it all starts with Robbins. The Drake transfer, along with Ihnen and Johnson, provides length, physicality, and robust shot-blocking rim-protection. While Minnesota does not force a ton of turnovers, Kalscheur, Carr, and Gach form a solid perimeter trio, which Mashburn and Williams supplement nicely from the bench.

Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino still struggles to consistently get the most out of his squads, but this roster has left him few options: maximize Marcus Carr, and get shooting from secondary players. The simplicity of the roster-construction and player-skill-role-allocation process this year really helps Pitino, and the fact that Minnesota has already taken down a team the caliber of Iowa should indicate just how far along in its development this squad is — by the end of the season, Minnesota may very well be an NCAA-tournament team, and a dangerous one at that.

Film Study:

Key Players:

Marcus Carr - Carr, as Zach detailed in his piece, is an excellent player and an adept three-level scorer. Averaging 24 points, four rebounds, and six assists per game, on 60 percent true-shooting percentage. Carr is the co-best guard in the conference along with Ayo Dosunmu for Illinois, and he is more than capable of single-handedly destroying the Spartan game-plan.

Gabe Kalscheur - Kalscheur’s shooting has not quite been there this season (he is shooting an Aaron Henry-esque 19 percent from three-point range), but he is still averaging nine points, two rebounds, and two assists per game. Kalscheur is a solid wing defender, heady, and does not quit on plays defensively.

Both Gach - Averaging 12 points, six rebounds, and nearly four assists per game. While Gach has really struggled in both Big Ten games to start conference play, he is a long and capable wing, but capable of being attacked on defense.

Brandon Johnson - Averaging eight points, five rebounds, and at least one made three-point shot per game (on 52.5 percent from three-point range). Of course, in two conference games, Johnson has shot better than 70 percent from three-point range, and made four three-pointers per game. He is a prime candidate for the currently hapless Spartan defense to “lose-track-of” only for him to drill three-pointers and have guys staring at each other in mock disbelief.

Liam Robbins - Averaging 12 points, nearly seven rebounds, and two blocks per game. Robbins should be comfortably the best center on the floor in the game against the Spartans, who will be hard-pressed to match his length (only Marcus Bingham Jr. could hope to do so), physicality (maybe Julius Marble can), or skill. Expect Thomas Kithier to really struggle against Robbins for the full twenty minutes the coaching staff is sure to hand him.

A comment on the rotation:

This Michigan State team, and the coaching staff in particular (as shocking as it is to write that), are in a real slump. The staff is insisting on playing guys, at certain positions, who have simply not demonstrated an ability to positively affect the outcome of games, and to play them the majority of the available minutes.

I am firmly of the belief that the team needs to go smaller in the front-court, and get longer on the wing — it is time for Tom Izzo to start the lineup of Rocket Watts, Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Malik Hall, and Joey Hauser. If this group was given an opportunity to develop some continuity and to get in a groove, I am confident that it would be both the best defensive and offensive five-man unit at the staff’s disposal.

That being said, this lineup will likely never start a game for Michigan State this season. Izzo and the staff are dead-set on giving Thomas Kithier about 20 minutes per game and force-feeding him possessions to build his confidence. While Kithier had one of his best performances in green and white in a losing effort against Wisconsin, I am increasingly convinced that his best role is off of the bench against other teams’ reserves.

In place of Kithier, Malik Hall would really change the dynamic of the team. Hall’s three-point shooting has already begun to tick back-up after starting out the season missing each of his first four shots from deep, Hall has now hit three of his last four attempts in the last three games. Hall’s rebounding has been solid all year long, he is a top-three defender on the team, and on the season he has a better than 2:1 assists:turnover ratio (averaging better than two assists per game).

While going small ostensibly weakens the interior defense for the Spartans, the five options at the center (Kithier, Marble, Bingham Jr., Mady Sissoko, and Hauser) have provided little-to-no rim protection or organization from the back-line of the defense, so there is little that is really being sacrificed from what I can tell. As a team, Michigan State has a three shot-blocking threats: Bingham, Henry, and Brown (Sissoko is not playing enough minutes against real competition to take his shot-blocking rate seriously). Kithier and Marble have combined for one block the entire season, and given that the staff has refused to try to “build-up” Bingham with the same attention, leeway, and benefit-of-the-doubt that they have given Kithier, it would seem appropriate to at least get a second shot-blocking threat in the form of Gabe Brown onto the floor, and to balance out the loss of size with a heady and tougher defender in Malik Hall.

On the wing, Brown is simply a more effective player than Joshua Langford at this point in their careers — and, to be clear, this is not an attack on Josh at all. Langford is one of my favorite Spartans, one of the best interviews on the team, and a delightful and resilient young man. But those wonderful characteristics, and even his occasional offensive rebounding and shot-making do not make up for the fact that he has been dire on the defensive end of the court (he conceded about 12 points to D’Mitrik Trice all on his own in the second half of the Wisconsin game, and has been similarly disastrous in many games this year).

While Brown has had his own ups and downs, and has not been nearly effective enough on the glass (although, despite writing that, Brown and Langford’s rebounding disparity is less than a single rebound per game on average), he also has the length, athletic ability, and shooting to have a far bigger impact as a starter. With a bigger role, and with plays actually being run for him, Brown could transform into one of the better off-ball players in the league (he has had about 10 plays that have been run for him all season, while I believe he should have about eight plays run for him every game).

Game Plan:

With that being said, and in an effort to operate within the reality in which we all live, how should the Spartans (as we see them before us) attack this Minnesota team?

Well, everything should start on the defensive end: I would start Henry on Carr, and rotate Watts, Brown, and Langford on him. Carr is not a player you want to get off to a good start, so putting the best perimeter defender on him from the start is the way to go. My guess is that the staff starts off with Watts on him and challenges Watts to shut him down.

Offensively, attacking Gach is paramount, he is a solid defender, but a bit weak physically, and a guy who has been prone to getting mentally knocked out of games this season; his first season since transferring from Utah. Robbins is terrific, so playing smaller and having him guard Hauser away from the rim would also be a great way to shift their primary shot-blocker, or, if he leaves Hauser, to get Hauser more perimeter looks.

While both Johnson and Ihnen are solid enough defenders — both pretty mobile, and long enough to bother passing lanes — they should also be hunted off-ball in screening actions, and on-ball in one-four pick-and-rolls whenever the team plays bigger, or when Hall is playing the forward position.

Despite being a bigger team, Minnesota is not a great defensive rebounding team, allowing opponents to grab about one-third of its misses. While Michigan State has been, frankly, truly disappointing on the glass (on both ends) this season, the Spartans should have an opportunity for second-chance points in ‘the Barn’.

Really this game comes down to the foundation of the program: defense, rebound, and run. The team and staff have failed to conjure any of the three in the conference-season’s opening two losses, and I fear that the coaching staff is not yet ready to make the necessary changes to the rotation that will turn the season around.


I have a sneaking suspicion that Michigan State will actually lose this game, but, on paper, this should be a Spartan victory. So we’ll go with the paper, and hope that reality does not catch up with the team.

MSU 84 Minnesota 82

(my gut tells me: MSU 74 Minnesota 85)