DES MOINES – Richard Pitino had a simple way to describe his Gophers basketball team the last time it played Michigan State.
“That was not a very good team,” Minnesota’s coach said Friday about a 24-point loss on Feb. 9 in East Lansing. “We were struggling.”
Pitino’s team was in the midst of a four-game losing streak then, thinking more about how to avoid a late-season collapse than making a postseason run.
Now, the 10 seed Gophers, coming off their best performance of the season in their opening-round NCAA tournament win vs. Louisville, are eager to show how much they’ve improved against No. 2 seed Michigan State on Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena.
“It definitely left a nasty taste in our mouth,” senior Dupree McBrayer said. “Of course, we want to pay them back, but that’s a tough team. It’s not going to be easy. We got to go out there and play hard, play together and play smart.”
Oddsmakers agree with McBrayer and set Michigan State as a 10-point favorite Saturday. The Spartans long have been a tournament power, with two national titles and Final Four appearances in 2015, 2010 and 2009. Since 2015, however, Michigan State has failed to reach the Sweet 16. The Spartans have lost in the second round the past two tournaments — to Syracuse last year and Kansas the year before — and lost in the first round in 2016 to Middle Tennessee.
Thursday’s 86-76 victory over the No. 7 seed Cardinals was the Gophers’ first NCAA tournament victory in six years. Minnesota (22-13) made it happen by setting a school record for NCAA tournament three-pointers with 11 — five of those coming from freshman Gabe Kalscheur, who finished with 24 points. Kalscheur had 17 points and went 3-for-4 on threes in the 79-55 loss at Michigan State (29-6) last month, but the rest of the team shot just 2-for-10 from beyond the arc.
The U’s veteran trio of Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer hit a low point that night in early February, combining for only 17 points on 6-for-17 shooting. Coffey had four points, and Murphy made one field goal.
That production will have to change Saturday night for Minnesota. But the potential differences 42 days later are deeper than that.
“I think that if there’s one thing that’s changed with [the Gophers], it’s they’re getting into the paint a lot,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “[Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer] are so big they can see over people. … They got two true Big Ten big men [Murphy and Daniel Oturu] that are rebounding the ball and are physical down there.”
Oturu played well offensively with 12 points and seven rebounds vs. Michigan State, but he struggled mightily on defense. The freshman center had four fouls trying to bang down low with Spartans junior Nick Ward, who finished with 22 points and nine rebounds.
“In high school, I was just bigger than everybody, so I just had to stand at the rim,” Oturu said. “I feel like I still have freshman moments, but I feel like I’ve grown a lot since then.”
The Spartans have changed since the last meeting as well. They had lost three straight games. Big Ten player of the year Cassius Winston was pretty much a nonfactor (11 points) against Minnesota, and starting forward Kenny Goins was sidelined after two minutes because of an elbow injury.
Michigan State turned its season around to become co-Big Ten champion in the regular season and win the conference tournament title, but Ward hasn’t been the same. He’s averaging just 5.5 points and 3.0 rebounds in about 11 minutes in the past four games after battling back from a broken hand.
Sophomore Xavier Tillman is averaging 13.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks as Ward’s replacement in the past five games. Tillman had 16 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks in Thursday’s 76-65 NCAA first-round win over Bradley. Izzo wants to play Ward more because of his past success against Minnesota, but Pitino doesn’t see much of a drop-off.
“They’re still going to be who Michigan State is,” Pitino said. “The bigs are going to run the court, duck you in early, pound the glass. They’re relentless, you know. They’re physically relentless, and that’s been the consistent theme with that team every single year that we’ve played them.”
Bradley’s athleticism and ability to penetrate frustrated the Spartans, who trailed with seven minutes left in the second half Thursday. Adjustments were needed against the Braves. Are more adjustments in store for a familiar foe in the Gophers?
“Trust me, there are some things we had to change [Thursday] ...” Izzo said. “So now we’re going to play a team that has a couple bigs, that’s more of a conventional team. I think that’s going to be better for us in a way.”
It’s a better matchup for his personnel, but Izzo still showed respect for Pitino’s improved Gophers: “Coming off the canvas like they did early on when they struggled,” he said. “Now they’re playing their best basketball. So hats off to him.”