East Lansing, Mich. - What's up, Gophers fans?
The 14th-ranked Gophers (11-2, 0-1 Big Ten) face the 20th-ranked Spartans (8-4, 0-0 Big Ten) on the road Friday afternoon. It's a big game for both teams.
Here are five questions related to the matchup:
Will the Gophers recover if they lose Friday?
A victory Friday would help the Gophers recover from their loss at Wisconsin Tuesday. A 1-1 split in two tough road games, given the depth in the Big Ten? That's success in this league. And this squad still believes it's good enough to challenge for a conference title. Beating the reigning champs would add some substance to those aspirations. They need that confidence with the kind of slate they have in January.
A loss could affect this squad for the rest of the season. They'd start the season 0-2 with Indiana, 2nd-ranked Ohio State (road) and 12th-ranked Purdue ahead in their next three games. That's a ridiculously challenging slate for any team, one that could lead to a snowball effect.
A 1-4 start is definitely possible for this squad if it loses Friday. A team that entered the year with hopes of finishing in the top tier of the league would potentially end that stretch in a fight to stay off the bubble, given all of the tough games they still have to play.
Before the end of the month, they'll travel to Michigan, where they've struggled under Tubby Smith. And they have to play Northwestern and face Purdue on the road. Ohio State and Illinois come to the Barn in early February.
A win Friday could set the tone for the rest of the year. A loss could affect this team for a long time.
Should Elliott Eliason play?
During Thursday's availability, Smith said he might pull the freshman center's redshirt due to Mo Walker's injury. Eliason, a two-time state player of the year in Nebraska, was dressed for the Wisconsin game.
I don't think Smith wants to waste Eliason's first year. But he also talked about "looking out for the program." The Gophers excelled during the nonconference season because they had size in their starting rotation and off the bench. Without Walker, Ralph Sampson fouled out late and Trevor Mbakwe picked up four fouls in Madison.
Smith said Eliason has played well in practice. If he can contribute, then he should play. But it's probably not worth it if he's not going to step in and give the Gophers quality minutes in a reserve role.
How can the Gophers beat the Spartans?
The Spartans have struggled with turnovers. They recorded 67 turnovers in their four losses this season. The Gophers have to be very active on defense. Early foul trouble limited Al Nolen against Wisconsin. That can't happen against the Spartans.
The Gophers have to stop penetration and limit the Spartans in transition. This is an athletic Spartans team with a lot of athletes who attack the rim. When the Spartans get to the basket, the Gophers need their big bodies to alter their shots.
And the Gophers need to show more poise. They went 2-for-11 in the last seven minutes of the loss at Wisconsin. Smith said he thought the Gophers were one play away from a victory.
If the Gophers play balanced basketball and limit their own turnovers (they had eight against Wisconsin), they definitely have a chance to win at East Lansing.
Why is Mbakwe the X-factor in this game?
The Spartans are a physically imposing team. They scrap on every play. Mbakwe gives the Gophers another combatant in the paint, an element they lacked last season. Draymond Green always throws his weight around in these games. But Mbakwe should challenge him and use his size to make an impact.
These games are always close. Mbakwe, in my opinion, is the difference-maker in physical contests like this one.
What's Al Nolen's role Friday?
He has to be a game manager and floor leader. The Gophers' intensity level dropped when he went to the bench early against the Badgers. Late in the second half, he pushed his teammates in a near-upset.
I think players feed off Nolen. They need him to play with poise, limit his mistakes and play lockdown defense. He went 0-for-6 in 22 minutes at Wisconsin. They need more from him.
Prediction: The Gophers know what a victory would mean for the rest of their season. A loss could be detrimental. They understand the stakes and I think they will fight for 40 minutes.
Gophers 72, Michigan State 71 (I'm 12-1 this season)
SCOUTING REPORT: (MICHIGAN STATE 8-4, 0-0 BIG TEN)
-Draymond Green is a threat on both ends of the floor. And he can hit shots from the three-point line (14 for 30).
-As always, they crash the boards.
-They're very athletic and aggressive.
-The Breslin Center is a very tough place to compete. Loud fans. Loud music. Intense environment.
-Losing Raymar Morgan and Chris Allen hurt this team. Morgan was a versatile defender. Allen was an extra scoring option who always hurt the Gophers.
-They haven't solved their problem with turnovers.
-They don't look like the same team from March's Final Four. It's taking time to develop chemistry with the young guys.
-They're coming off six major offseason surgeries. Are they healthy? Tom Izzo says Kalin Lucas isn't 100 percent yet after suffering a season-ending injury in the NCAA tournament last year.