At the time of the Gophers’ decisive 13-point victory over Michigan State, it seemed like turning of the tides. Minnesota, which had lost 12 of the last 14 against the Spartans, was on top, and the season-opening 76-63 win seemed like the start of something.
Instead, that game indicated very little about how the two teams’ immediate paths would go. Michigan State went on to win seven of its next eight games (losing only to No. 1 Indiana) while the Gophers went 4-4.
Now, the rematch represents two very different things for both teams. No. 18 Minnesota is trying to get on a roll with a third consecutive victory after home wins against Nebraska and Iowa, while also keeping its head above .500 in the conference. No. 12 Michigan State is trying to play its way into the conference title conversation – a place the Gophers had once hoped to be at this time.
Despite the apparent meaningfulness of the Gophers first win over Michigan State, this one would mean much more. The Spartans are playing like a better team now. It would be the best road win Minnesota’s had (in a place where they’ve lost 13 consecutive games). And perhaps most importantly, it would boost their record to 6-4 rather than dropping it to 5-5. For a team that confidence (or not) still seems to play a large role, that is a significant difference.
Other notes on tonight’s matchup at Breslin Center:
- Since the Gophers played Michigan State, Adreian Payne has joined the starting lineup and has upped his play considerably, notching double-digits in points in five of the last seven games while grabbing at least six rebounds in four of those games. Against the Gophers the first time around, Payne managed just four points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes against Minnesota. Payne is still not always consistent – the center put up a two-point, two-rebound game at Wisconsin.
- The Spartans have played in a lot of close games lately, and have done pretty well in those circumstances. Five of their last seven games have been decided by five points or fewer, with Michigan State winning four of those.
- With Payne in the lineup, the Spartans will be significantly bigger than they were the first time around vs. the Gophers. Then, Minnesota used the opportunity to really fight on the boards and out-tough the Spartans. Now, Payne adds a 6-10 body and a lot more girth to the frontcourt. Gophers coach Tubby Smith has been experimenting some with a bigger lineup as well, using Elliott Eliason at center with Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams at the forward spots. He seems to like the idea of that, so I expect we’ll be seeing more of that tonight.
- In the backcourt, however, the Spartan’s depth chart could be a little short with both Gary Harris and Travis Trice questionable for tonight’s game. Harris – who has been suffering from back spasms -- is the most likely to get time after returning to practice on Monday. Trice, who hit his head in Thursday’s game, was not yet cleared (from possibility of a concussion) to play as of Monday. Trice sustained a concussion in the first game of the season, against Connecticut, and missed two weeks at that time.
- If Trice isn’t able to play, it will likely be Denzel Valentine backing up at point guard, although Tom Izzo told Michigan State media that he would consider playing Keith Appling 40 minutes. Valentine scored a career-high 14 points in the Spartans’ last game vs. Illinois.
- Tubby Smith has continued to downplay Trevor Mbakwe’s hand injury, but the statistics would disagree. In the Gophers’ past two games, Mbakwe has failed to grab double-digit rebounds – after doing so for the previous seven games – and has appeared to struggle holding on to the ball.
*Watch tonight’s game on Big Ten Network
*Listen to tonight’s game on 1500-a.m.
*In today’s Star Tribune, a look at the Gophers halfway through the Big Ten schedule. Is Tubby Smith pleased?
*This week’s aMAILia BAG.
*More on tonight’s matchup here.
*Video breakdown of some of tonight’s themes.
*Bigfoot click: listen to these howls and tell me what that is.