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Michigan State Men’s Basketball Preview: Spartans visit Minnesota for Big Ten opener

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The currently unbeaten Gophers will entertain Michigan State with plenty of transfers in the lineup.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 12 Asheville Championship - Western Kentucky v Minnesota
Sixth year senior Payton Willis is one of Minnesota’s most dangerous offensive players.
Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Enough of the on-conference hoopla, the real season begins now… at least for a couple games until we have another sort of holiday break. Michigan State will open up its Big Ten slate with a trip to the “Barn” facing a currently unbeaten Minnesota Golden Gophers team. To see how the Spartans might be able to change that zero-burger in the loss column for the Gophers, let’s dive into the preview!

Game Information

Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021

9:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Big Ten Network

Williams Arena, Minneapolis, Minnesota

How last season went for Minnesota

In short, last season didn’t go too well for Minnesota, as the Gophers finished the year with an overall record of 14 wins and 15 losses. It resulted in the end of Richard Pitino’s tenure after eight years as the Gophers‘ head coach and led to the hiring of former Northwestern and Minnesota guard Ben Johnson as the new head man. The team went through a free fall at the end of the year, losing 11 out of 14 games, including four home losses. All that came after a very promising start to Minnesota’s season, with seven wins over top-100 opponents in 15 games.

The state of Minnesota’s program

As of now, the Minnesota program looks to be in shambles with almost every prominent player from last year’s team leaving over the offseason (among them All-Big Ten guard and top-scorer Marcus Carr). But considering how badly last season went and that Pitino for most of his career at Minny was treading water (two NCAA appearances in eight seasons despite fairly talented rosters most of the time), a fresh start might just be what the doctor ordered.

Ben Johnson (40) is a young head coach who has worked for some well-run programs over the last decade plus (including Northern Iowa’s heyday and Xavier). The Minneapolis native was a high school star in Minnesota, winning two state titles at DeLaSalle High School, and later played for the Gophers after starting out his career at Northwestern. He is known for having great contacts throughout the state as a recruiter. The local kid who has a lot of ties nearby is definitely a story that could become a bestseller for the Gophers, even if there will certainly be some growing pains. For this year, Johnson’s task was basically to field a competitive team after all the offseason losses, and as the team’s unbeaten start indicates, he has done pretty well in the transfer portal.

Minnesota Gophers basketball hires Ben Johnson
The Minnesota native Ben Johnson had a good start coaching his alma mater.
Photo by Brian Peterson, Star Tribune via Getty Images

How this season has gone for Minnesota

The Minnesota Golden Gophers entered the year basically without any serious expectations, so the team’s unbeaten streak to begin the year through the first seven games of the season has raised at least a few eyebrows. But looking closer at the level of competition the Gophers have faced (their best wins probably are Princeton, Western Kentucky and Mississippi State), and considering how they had quite a few close calls late in games, puts a perspective on their perfect record. Nonetheless, you can only win the games against the opponents you play, and that is exactly what Minnesota did. Considering how much change the program had to go through recently, this start is definitely something to hang your hat on if you are a Gophers fan.

Projected Starting Lineup

PG Payton Willis (Sr., 6-4, 200 lbs, 17.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 50% FG, 44.2% 3P)

SG E.J. Stephens (Sr., 6-3, 176 lbs, 11.1 points, 4 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 42.2% FG, 45.2% 3P)

SF Luke Loewe (Sr., 6-4, 186 lbs, 6.9 points, 3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 41.3% FG, 17.6% 3P)

PF Jamison Battle (Jr., 6-7, 225 lbs, 17.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 47.9% FG, 33.9% 3P)

C Eric Curry (Sr., 6-9, 240 lbs, 7.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 40.4% FG, % 3P)

Key Reserves

SG Sean Sutherlin (Sr., 6-5, 200 lbs)

PF/C Charlie Daniles (Sr., 6-9, 230 lbs)

Some tidbits and numbers

So far, Minnesota hasn’t particularly been an impressive offensive team and that isn’t surprising at all, considering how the roster basically went through a complete overhaul and many of the players are still getting to know each other. Minnesota currently ranks 142nd in adjusted offense, according to Kenpom, and 90th overall (Michigan State checks in at 22nd overall, 68th on offense and second on defense). Some of the Gophers’ transfers, though, have really proven that they were ready for the job and especially the top-two scorers Payton Willis (who came over from the College of Charleston after previous stints at Vanderbilt and actually Minnesota) and Jamison Battle (from George Washington) have found their footing early.

Willis is a big guard (6-foot-4) who can (and will) isolate and create his own shot off the dribble. He is physical, doesn’t shy away from contact and will enter the paint looking to score or dish. While more of a combo guard, he has a good feel for the game and takes care of the ball fairly well, especially considering his heavy workload and extensive usage.

Battle, while not really physically imposing, is a pure scorer and a talented combo forward who loves to let it go from deep (eight three-pointer attempts per game). He has true deep range and often rises up well beyond the three point line. Both he and Willis will get the ball in the post and get space there to operate with their back to the basket. E.J. Stephens is the third double-digit scorer for the Gophers, a lanky, versatile guard who moves well with and without the ball. Just like the two top scorers, he has been extremely dangerous from three-point range, connecting on 45.2 percent of his deep jumpers (during the last three seasons at his previous school Lafayette, he did not shot better than 33.3 percent, though).

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 14 Asheville Championship - Minnesota v Princeton
Jamison Battle is a versatile scorer who can connect from anywhere on the court.
Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Luke Loewe came in billed as a good scorer, but has taken over the role as Minnesota’s glue guy. He moves the ball well, plays strong defense and makes a lot of plays that don’t show up in the stat sheet. His late put-back with 2.4 seconds to go won the Gophers their game against Pittsburgh. Erik Curry is in his sixth year for the program, but injuries derailed what was a fairly promising career early on. He is a big body who will operate a bit in the post but can also drain the occasional mid-range jumper. Seth Sutherlin is the first guy off the bench and provides energy with his slashing ability and mobility.

Johnson plays the rotation extremely tight, five of his players average north of 35 minutes per game. Understandably, Minnesota isn’t looking to run much and also concentrates heavily on preventing transition for the opponent. The Gophers play solid all-around defense (KenPom rank 54), can switch quite a bit on the perimeter and play fairly aggressive in the backcourt. Even if the Gophers struggle to prevent post entries and leave Curry a bit on an island inside, they would rather extend on shooters than give up easy open looks from the outside. As of now, Minnesota the best three-point defense in the country (opponents only shoot 23.1 percent against the Gophers), but this number of course could be a bit misleading this early into the season.

The offense, as could be expected, is very basic with plenty of screens and monotone off the ball movement. Minnesota doesn’t really rack up many assists, often tries to find mismatches with its premier scorers and will end up in quite a few isolation plays. From the outside looking in, though, the Gophers don’t seem to be a selfish team, it’s just basically the way they have to play not knowing each other as well. It also helps in another area, as Minnesota rarely beats itself currently. The Gophers don’t turn the ball over much (only 9.7 per game) and don’t foul much either.

Conclusion

Even with the team’s 7-0 start, the Minnesota Golden Gophers have to be considered a program in transition. The early work by Ben Johnson and his team has looked solid and with an experienced, senior-laden squad, the Gophers surely can provide a surprise here and there during Big Ten play. A conference home opener is always a special occasion, especially for a lot of kids who will get their first taste of Big Ten basketball. So the Spartans better expect a confident team, even if it is a group that doesn’t possess close to the skill level, the size, the firepower or the physicality of Michigan State. Still, though, this Minnesota team appears to be at least somewhat better than it was predicted to be in the preseason.