Michigan State beat Minnesota men’s basketball by ten points in a game that was much closer than the final score. The 76-66 win for the Spartans featured physical play that felt like the game came from a bygone era in the Big Ten.
Michigan State let Minnesota shoot the lights out for most of the game - until the final six minutes of the game where the Gophers went completely cold. That was the difference in the game as the Spartans were finally able to pull away in the closing minutes. This game was a win. The factors going into this game mean the grades are a bit rougher than you might expect in a win.
Details of the Curve for this Game: Minnesota looks like a team with a better record than their talent. On paper, they do not have many big wins. Their brightest spot this year has been their point guard, who leads the nation in assists per game. That plus shooting from Cam Christie (yes, Max Christie’s younger brother) and some creative scoring from Pharrel Payne. Regardless, this is a team that Michigan State should dominate. Add to that the pre-game news that the Gophers would be without their star point guard, and the curve on this game is essentially: if the Spartans aren’t dominating in a facet of the game, the grade is not going to be kind.
The offense for the Spartans started just like you draw it up on a white board pre-game. They won the tip and immediately fed Malik Hall deep in the post. The fifth year senior made an easy move to get a quick bucket. The next possession they utilized Hall and Tyson Walker in a give and go screen that Walker curled into a jumper and drew a foul. The playcalls seemed designed to get Hall involved early. A smart move as the Spartans are a different team when he scores and rebounds.
Hall stayed aggressive even after a badly missed wide open three. Using his experience to have a short memory, on the next possession he made a solid move for a made jumper.
When Hall took an early rest, the Spartan offense slowed down considerably. Izzo rotated Coen Carr then Booker at the four spot. Booker had a nice moment on his first possession, stepping into the center of Minnesota’s zone and one touch passing off to Carson Cooper for a dunk. It was a fast hands, heads up play for the inexperienced freshman.
Early on though the zone definitely threw Michigan State off. With Walker and Hall on the bench the lineup of Holloman (at point guard), Hoggard (at shooting guard), Akins, Booker and Cooper were struggling to figure out the zone. A deep three by Holloman bailed out an almost lost possession. The confusion though was evident as Holloman spent the entire trip back on defense shouting at Cooper and Booker to be in different positions.
Michigan State was shooting around 60% for the game but had only one three pointer for most of the first half. That kept Minnesota in the game, as the Spartans were essentially exchanging two pointers for threes for a six minute stretch.
A lineup with Coen Carr at the three and Malik Hall at the four showed some limitations. Carr is not a threat from deep nor is Malik Hall. Considering MSU’s centers are never threats outside of dunks right now, this lineup creates serious spacing problems for the offense. To their credit, everyone in this lineup was driving hard to the hoop. It’s an interesting change of pace for a team more accustomed to playing with three shooters (yes, I’m counting AJ Hoggard as a shooter here) on the floor.
The second half looked like Minnesota made adjustments and Michigan State had not. Mostly, the offense was decent in the first half for the Spartans - except the three point shooting. The problem in the second half was Minnesota decided to start making the game as grinding as possible. Too often, the Spartans couldn’t get into a rhythm because of the physical defense of the Gophers.
MIchigan State’s second half offense made scoring look hard. To the players credit they continued to fight even when the three pointers were clearly not falling. The dominance MSU had in the paint was a credit to the amount of driving and post up moves by non-centers the team was willing to deploy.
Malik Hall was essential in this game offensively. That’s a great development for the team. The concern is the team will not win a lot with this offensive profile. It was enough to win in this game. It needs to be better.
Offensive Grade: B-
The early defense had Minnesota completely flustered. At least three steals in the first five minutes and another forced turnover (Malik Hall drawing a charge). Minnesota was missing their star point guard and his absence showed as the Spartans hounded Minnesota’s ball handlers.
The Golden Gophers got back into the game as they started hitting from outside. They have a few shooters who can get going. Going 4 for 5 early from deep helped keep Minnesota in the game. This coincided with the Spartans going deeper into its bench. The reality is any lineup with Coen Carr or Xavier Booker is simply not going to cover the three point line well.
The Spartans found ways to force turnovers in large bunches in the first half but they were vulnerable too often to the long ball. 32 points at half for the Gophers was not a huge amount, but considering they were without their point guard, it was a bit underwhelming that the Spartans allowed Minnesota to tally that much. Allowing Minnesota to shoot 48% and 5 of 11 from three in the first half is simply not a fantastic effort on defense.
The second half saw minimal initial improvement in the Spartan defense. Even with Minnesota’s point guard out for the game and their top two remaining scorers (Christie and Payne) being in foul trouble, the shots were continuing to fall. It was clear the Gophers were prioritizing ball security, and when they stopped coughing up the ball it meant more possessions ended in made shots.
The Gophers also capitalized on an emerging clear weakness for the Spartans: athletic forwards driving on the centers. Michigan State’s centers have more than a few weaknesses. One that was exposed against Illinois and again in this game was their inability to contain a smaller forward driving directly at them. Particularly Cooper was susceptible to power drives being taken straight through him.
This was simply not a good defensive performance. The point total by Minnesota was not terrible. The shooting percentage allowed by the Spartans was a problem. Leaving out end of game panic misses by Minnesota, the Gophers simply shot the ball too well with too many open threes.
The Spartans dug deep and did get the stops when they were needed. It helped that Minnesota went ice cold over the final six minutes of the game. This saved an otherwise poor performance from a much worse grade.
Defensive Grade: C
While Malik Hall was dominating the Spartans half court offense it was early transition that looked like it bothered Minnesota the most. A few early steals turned into run outs, including an awkward pass/missed layup by Tyson Walker that a trailing AJ Hoggard tapped in (it would be kind to call it a dunk). After yet another steal, Tre Holloman threaded the needle in traffic to find a sprinting Carson Cooper for a wide open slam in transition. That forced an early Minnesota timeout and gave an early impression the Spartans could run away with the game.
The Spartans talent in transition can sometimes be an achilles heel. About midway through the first half, the Spartans were pushing in transition on every possession. It looked good and they got good looks at the basket. The problem is when they miss those shots, they are rarely in position to rebound. Offensive rebounding has been a clear weakness of this team. When the team falls in love with pushing for early shots, it can expose this weakness and create a run of too short possessions.
Transition disappeared in the early going of the second half. The foul calls and physical play of the Gophers kept the Spartans mostly grounded when they wanted to fly up and down the court. Offensively, the Gophers stopped turning the ball over and were shooting a higher percentage. It limited the opportunities for the Spartans.
When the Gophers missed a few shots, the Spartans were ready to capitalize. On three straight possessions, a Hall defensive rebound led to a run out opportunity. It put the Spartans back up by five points and created some breathing room after the Gophers had started to make the game feel uncomfortable.
The Spartans needed every bit of the transition game. It contributed to the win. It still felt like it should have been more.
Transition Grade: B
Coach Izzo started the game with a clear game plan: get Malik Hall involved immediately. It worked. Hall triggered the early offense and was responsible for 8 of the first 11 points as either the scorer or the assist (9 points if you count Walker’s and-1 foul shot to Hall’s assist).
Defensively, Izzo clearly instructed his players to prioritize harassing ball handlers. It was a smart move with Minnesota without its point guard. While the strategy generated almost ten turnovers in the first half, it also contributed to Spartan defenders chasing turnovers and leaving shooters open.
Izzo also continued to use his depth. The first half saw 10 players touch the floor before the 12 minute timeout. Xavier Booker got some valuable minutes and Coen Carr saw time at both the three and four spot in the first half. The deep rotation and creative lineups at times meant the offense got a little off track. Minnesota though on paper is the type of team where you have some room to experiment. Also, it kept the starters fresh and will hopefully pay dividends through player development.
The Spartans did not make any major style adjustments in the early second half. It seemed Izzo’s adjustment was simply shortening his bench.
The part where the Spartans got outplayed was physicality. Minnesota was fouling all over the place and had its two best players (other than their injured point guard) had four fouls each before the 16-minute mark in the second half. It clearly bothered Izzo that his team was getting out toughed.
That may have contributed to Izzo earning a technical foul for yelling at the refs. It was unclear at the time what the issue was, but considering the sheer number of bodies flying around the floor with no whistles it could have been about a lot of things. That rage sparked the crowd but also seemed to distract the team a bit. Izzo does have a tendency to carry his anger at refs over to distracted coaching. Luckily, it didn’t last long, but it was a problem briefly.
In response to Minnesota finding offense driving the lane with their forwards, Izzo rolled out a brief try at a double-big lineup. Putting Sissoko and Cooper on the floor together hasn’t happened in months. It drew a foul on Minnesota but did not last long as Hall came back in at the four spot to play offense.
The late game lineups helped the Spartans pull away in the final minutes. It was good coaching that benefited from Minnesota playing some of its guys into the ground due to the foul trouble and missing point guard.
Izzo made some good decisions in this game and showed a dedication to give the younger guys minutes to develop them. When the game was tense in the second half, he also showed a willingness to shorten his bench, as he seems clear who he believes his winning players are at the moment. The moves and adjustments were positive. Still, this team’s overall performance was not stellar in this game. This team should have been keyed up to blow out the Gophers.
Coaching Grade: B+
This was an old-school Big Ten game. The physicality in this game looked like it was from a different era. Minnesota seemed to decide it didn’t match up skill wise so would make the game as ugly as possible. For too much of the game, this approach worked against the Spartans.
It would be very concerning to see a team with more player by player skill than Minnesota adopt this approach. Minnesota simply did not have the depth to play as physically as they did in this game. It sidelined their big scorers with foul trouble - which was particularly hard for a team missing their point guard to recover from.
The Spartans were able to pull away late. This appeared to be more about Minnesota running out of gas and launching panic shots (that they missed) for the final six minutes of the game rather than anything truly dominant by the Spartans.
This was a win the Spartans will take - they all count the same. They have a lot to improve off this game, particularly a home game that they almost let slip away.
Overall Grade: B-