U's road success, win streak faces tough challenge

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 25, 2012 - 8:20 PM

The Gophers haven't won at Michigan State since the year many players on the current team were born.

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The Gophers' Rodney Williams stopped Northwestern's Dave Sobolewski during Minnesota's 75-52 victory.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune file

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The road has been good to the Gophers. But not this road.

Since the start of Big Ten play, the Gophers have surprisingly played some of their basketball away from home. Even when they've lost, they've played well.

But Michigan State is a different sort of challenge. The Spartans (16-4) are tied for first in the conference, and are ranked No. 10 in the country.

And to add to the psychological barrier, the Gophers officially have not won at East Lansing since 1990. They actually won there in 1996 and '97, but Gophers results from 1994 to '99 were vacated because of an academic fraud scandal.

"The Michigan State game will be huge," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "They've had great players and they have a great coach in Tom Izzo and they've got a tough place to play."

The Gophers have played -- and won -- in tough places this season. They have won their past two road games, including the Gophers' first Big Ten victory of the season at Indiana's formidable Assembly Hall, and have played close, competitive games at Illinois and Michigan.

"We know that when we're on the road, we've got to come out and play a lot harder because we know we've got not only the team we're playing against but basically the whole stadium against us," junior forward Rodney Williams said after the victory at Indiana. "So when we come out, we've got to come out with fire, we've got to play a lot harder. Not necessarily harder than we play when we're at home, but we've got to play with more poise. Because the environment's a lot more hostile."

But Wednesday could be the biggest test of whether the trend of strong road play is real.

Michigan State has one of the top players in the league in senior forward Draymond Green and maybe the fastest in sophomore guard Keith Appling. The Spartans have a league top-five candidate in four categories -- rebounding, assists, free-throw percentage and field-goal percentage. And perhaps most notably, the Spartans have not lost at home all season.

Of course, that was the case for the Hoosiers in Indiana, too.

"I think it gives us the courage that we can go on the road and play well and get a win, because we have done it," Smith said.

The team's youth could serve as an advantage Wednesday -- in many of these players' young careers, the only history they know is competing strongly away from home. And now, with four road games down, the experience is no longer new.

"I think now that we have a couple of away games under our belt, it definitely helps with the youth on the team," senior center Ralph Sampson III said. "[It] almost kind of helps us shake off the losing streak we had before."

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