Gophers men’s hoops at Michigan State 

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

Point guard duel – While sitting out last season as a Pittsburgh transfer, Marcus Carr watched his Gophers teammates go through the Big Ten grinder without a true point guard. He desperately wanted to help them, but he didn’t receive a waiver to play right away. Carr made a list of all the point guards he wanted to face once he got on the court for the Gophers this season. At the top of that list was Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, the reigning Big Ten player of the year. Carr and Winston will meet Thursday night. One stellar Big Ten career is ending. The other is just getting started. Winston’s scoring numbers are better but it’s not an unfair comparison: 18.9 to 15.9 in points, 6.3 to 6.9 in assists, 2.2 to 5.5 in rebounds and 38 to 30.9 percent three-point shooting. Winston is coming off a season-high 32-point performance in a win against Michigan. Carr is capable of big scoring outbursts of his own with highs of 35 points vs. Ohio State and 27 points vs. Purdue this season. Only Winston and Maryland’s Anthony Cowan are scoring more among Big Ten point guards this year. Winston is hitting his stride averaging 24 points in his last four games, but so is Carr at 20 points per game in the last three. Before the season, Carr said this about playing the best: "Definitely one of the things I’m looking forward to is going at all of the guards in the conference trying to prove not only I belong but that I belong at the top." Should be fun to watch this duel Thursday night in East Lansing.   

Bench spark – The Gophers improved to 1-5 this season in games decided by single digits after last weekend’s 77-68 victory against Northwestern at home. That game was really never in question, though, as Minnesota had a 23-point margin in the second half. Finishing close games has been difficult for the Gophers, including losing a five-point lead in the final three minutes in an 83-78 double-overtime Jan. 2 loss at Purdue. That was only the second loss in two seasons (25-2) when the Gophers had a lead in the last five minutes. Could starter’s fatigue have been a factor in some of the close losses? Richard Pitino relies less on his bench so far than any season during his seven-year tenure, ranking 315th out of 353 Division I teams in bench minutes (24.3 percent). Getting junior guard Payton Willis back from a three-game absence with an ankle injury should bolster Pitino’s bench Thursday against Michigan State. Willis scored seven points and had three rebounds playing 22 minutes off the bench vs. Northwestern. Freshman guard Tre’ Williams, who started the last four games for Willis, had a career-best 10 points, five rebounds, two blocks and two steals against the Wildcats. Williams and sophomore forward Jarvis Omersa led the Gophers in plus-minus against Northwestern at 11 and 12, respectively. How much Pitino utilizes his bench could be a difference Thursday.  

Rebounding strength – In the second half of Sunday’s win over Northwestern, the Big Ten’s leading rebounder Daniel Oturu rose up for defensive board, but his teammate Williams – five inches shorter – soared in and snatched the ball before he could haul it in. Oturu was so caught off guard that he actually lost his footing and fell to the floor. The Gophers can really prove their strength on the glass is legitimate Thursday night at Michigan State. The Spartans might not be too deep inside but still can impose their physicality as well as anyone in the country. You might think that’s a mismatch since Pitino’s team lost the No. 2 rebounder in Big Ten history after Jordan Murphy graduated. Oturu has picked up where Murphy left off leading the league with 12.4 rebounds per game. But Minnesota’s also dominating the boards as a team. Through four Big Ten games, the Gophers rank third in the conference with a plus-9.0 rebounding margin, which only trails Michigan State (plus-10.3) and Indiana (plus-9.3). They outrebounded Ohio State, Purdue and Northwestern by an average margin of 12.3 rebounds per game. Minnesota ranks 28th in the country in rebounds per game (40.4), compared to 36.5 last season. Rebounding was such a big piece of the Gophers’ identity during an NCAA tournament run last year, but they might actually be a better rebounding team this season. Carr leads all Big Ten point guards with 5.5 rebounds per game, which is second on the team. Senior forward Alihan Demir started off the season slow providing a presence on the glass, but he’s averaging 6.8 rebounds in his last four games, which included a season-best nine rebounds vs. Northwestern. Williams should probably let Oturu handle most of the rebounding duties if he’s in the vicinity, but he’s also averaging 5.3 rebounds in the last three games.

GAME INFO

Time: 8 p.m. CT, Thursday. Where: Breslin Center. Line: Minnesota 12.5-point underdog. Series: Michigan State leads the series 62-57, including the last meeting 70-50 on March 23, 2019 in NCAA tournament second round in Des Moines. TV: ESPN2. Online/Live video: ESPNWatch. Radio: 103.5

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (8-6, 2-2)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G – Marcus Carr 6-2 190 So. 15.9

G – Payton Willis 6-5 200 Jr. 10.6

G – Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 200 So. 13.4

F – Alihan Demir 6-9 235 Sr. 7.7

C – Daniel Oturu 6-10 245 So. 19.2

Key reserves– Tre’ Williams, G, 6-5, Fr., 3.9; Jarvis Omersa, F, 6-7, So., 2.7 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Sr., 2.2 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 138-112 (8th season overall)  

Notable: Redshirt junior big man Eric Curry had successful surgery in the fall on a torn ACL in his right knee suffered during practice Oct. 7. The 6-9 redshirt junior hasn’t played a full season since his freshman year in 2016-17 after tearing ligaments in his left knee in 2017 and foot surgery last season. The last time Curry saw the court for the Gophers was with six points, four rebounds and two blocks in 13 minutes in a win at Northwestern on Feb. 28, 2019 ... In the past four games, the Gophers have been shooting 75-for-81 from the free throw line (92.6 percent), including 19-for-19 in their last game against Northwestern. They rank fourth among Big Ten teams in free throw percentage (73.8), right behind Michigan State (74.9) ... Minnesota shot 29 for 40 on free throws, including 14 for 20 in overtime in a 96-90 victory in East Lansing in 2015. That was the Gophers' first win at Michigan State since the vacated Final Four season in 1997.

NO. 8 MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS (12-3, 4-0)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Cassius Winston 6-1 Sr. 18.9

G – Gabe Brown 6-7 So. 8.7

G – Aaron Henry 6-6 So. 10.2

F – Xavier Tillman 6-8 Jr. 13.9

C – Marcus Bingham Jr. 6-11 So. 5.1

Key reserves – Malik Hall, F, 6-7, Fr., 5.1 ppg; Kyle Ahrens, G, 6-5, So., 3.5 ppg; Rocket Watts, G, 6-2, Fr., 6.8 ppg; Foster Loyer, G, 6-1, So., 4.3 ppg; Julius Marble, F, 6-8, Fr., 2.5 ppg.

Coach: Tom Izzo 618-235 (24th season) 

Notable: Junior forward Xavier Tillman is having a breakout season replacing Nick Ward as the go-to inside presence for the Spartans. The 6-foot-8, 245-pound Tillman is averaging a career-high 13.9 points and 9.8 rebounds on 55.8 percent shooting from the field. Arguably his best game so far this season came last weekend with 20 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks in a win against Michigan. Tillman led the Spartans with14 points and six rebounds in a 70-50 NCAA tournament second round win against the Gophers last March … The Spartans have won seven straight games since suffering a 87-75 loss at home against Duke on Dec. 3.

Fuller’s prediction (8-6 with picks): Michigan State 81, Gophers 67.

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