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Gary Harris

Game Preview: Gophers vs. Michigan State 12/31/12

12/28/2012, 8:35am CST
By J.B. Bauer

Gophers Look to Validate Lofty National Ranking by Beating Nemesis

The Big Ten season begins for the No. 11/14 Minnesota Golden Gophers and No. 19/19 Michigan State Spartans Monday afternoon. Game time is 1pm CT and this one can be seen on ESPN2. (Photo: MSU freshman Gary Harris; Photo Credit: Rey Del Rio / MSU Athletics Communications)

MSU HC Izzo & AD Hollis

MSU head coach Tom Izzo & AD Mark Hollis. Hollis said this week that plans for a four-game circus at Cowboys Stadium next season are off. (Photo credit: Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)

For a third year in a row Minnesota begins conference play with just one loss, but the expectations are much higher this season. They’ll enter this game as the favorite despite zero regular season victories against the Spartans since Tubby Smith arrived more than five years ago. 

Meanwhile, Michigan State has started 11-2 including a neutral court win over Kansas. In their two losses, Coach Izzo’s team has been stung by the 3-point shot, with Connecticut and Miami (FL) shooting a combined 15/29 (51.7%) from behind the arc. 

Nationally, fans and media are down on Michigan State a bit more than may be appropriate. With achievable improvement in 3-point shooting percentage and a reduction in turnovers, the Spartans’ profile takes on a look of a top contender in the Big Ten. They’re a very good team. 

It’s a big weekend for Minnesota sports. Friday night the Gopher football team plays Texas Tech in its first bowl game since 2009. Sunday afternoon the Vikings host the Packers and can clinch a playoff berth with a win. Sunday evening, Gopher hockey takes on No. 1 Boston College.

Monday afternoon, however, all eyes will be on the men’s basketball team.

While there would be no shame in losing a close game, Minnesota would love to make a strong statement by earning a rare victory against Michigan State. 


It doesn’t seem likely that either team will have such a great advantage in another area of the game such that they win Monday without shooting the ball nearly as well as, or better than, the other team. 

However, that’s what happened last time these two met. In Minneapolis, the Gophers outshot (eFG%) Michigan State 51.1% to 46.2%, but the Spartans were able to pull out a win mostly due to a season-low 8.2% turnover rate (compared to Minnesota’s 25.0% that game). I wouldn’t count on that happening again. 

Neither team shoots a lot from 3-point range, but Michigan State has been better at making their 2-point shots than Minnesota has. Thanks to their bigs (Nix and Payne combined for 12/17 2FG), the Spartans shot well in their last game against Texas who is a team that normally defends 2-point field goals very well. Not unlike most games, limiting points in the paint is key for the Gophers. 

Minnesota’s 2-point shooting has been inconsistent, but the likely starting five has shot fairly well over the course of the season (54.1% 2FG compared to a team average of 51.5%). Any coach can decide to play his bench a lot of minutes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the team is deep. 

The Spartans defend very well. The Gophers give themselves the best chance to win by playing their top players and selecting their shots wisely. Substitutions and the shot chart for Minnesota can win or lose this game. 


The Spartans are turning the ball over at an inexcusable rate of 23.0% this year, but they can be a Jeykll & Hyde. Against Nicholls St. earlier this month, Michigan State committed just 8 turnovers. The following game, they gave up the ball 19 times to Arkansas Pine Bluff. 

The Gophers saw just how disciplined the Spartans can be last year at Williams Arena when they had only 5 turnovers (8% turnover rate). In Michigan State’s next game, against Nebraska no less, their turnover rate jumped to 28%. 

Minnesota is prone to turnovers hurting their chances in games as well, but they haven’t had an awful amount of miscues in any of the six games since leaving the Bahamas. 

On defense, the Gophers need to pressure the ball when Michigan State gets it into the post. The backcourt has done a good job limiting turnovers for MSU, but the other positions have coughed up the rock often. 


Minnesota’s offensive rebounding dominance and the challenges ahead have been discussed. The Gophers relatively weak defensive rebounding has been as well. How would Minnesota fare against a team who is solid on both sides of the glass? We’ll find out Monday afternoon. 

Michigan State should have at least one of either Adreian Payne or Derrick Nix on the court most of the time and both of them have been good at keeping opponents from getting second chances. 

When the Spartans miss, both Payne and Nix often come to the rescue as does wing Branden Dawson. 


Monday’s game shouldn’t come down to who gets to the free throw line the most. However with this being the first conference game of the year and one in which both teams have some large, physical and aggressive players, the tone set by the teams and potentially the referees early on could prove important. 


Point guard Keith Appling (14.9p, 3.5r, 4.1a) leads the team in scoring and minutes played (33.2 mpg). Just 6’1”, he’s able to get to the rim and draw contact but can also knock down the occasional 3-pointer (15/40 3FG for 37.5%). 

Sophomore wing Branden Dawson (9.8p, 6.2r, 1.9s) has a pro-ready body and explosive athleticism. Dawson made an impressive recovery from a March ACL tear and is still one of the more exciting Big Ten players to watch.

B.J.’s leaping ability, physicality and length helps him to be an excellent offensive rebounder and shot blocker despite being 6’6”. So far this year Dawson has had some awful nights keeping control of the ball, but besides the turnovers his year has been good. 

Gary Harris (12.4p), a 6’4” freshman wing, is a legitimate future star and the future may be now. Harris has knocked down 62% of his 2-point tries and his 31.9% conversion rate on 3-pointers (15/47) has room to improve. Another explosive player who can slash, shoot and defend. 

On Monday Derrick Nix (9.8p, 7.8r) was named the Big Ten Player of the Week after averaging 17 points and 9.5 rebounds in a pair of games. At 6’9”, 270 pounds he’s a space eater, but Nix also has good hands and displays nifty footwork.

Nix has always been strong on the offensive glass, but this season his defensive rebounding percentage is bested in the Big Ten only by teammate Adreian Payne and Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe (of players appearing in at least 40% of their team’s minutes). 

Adreian Payne (8.7p, 7.5r) stands 6’10” and has a wingspan of 7’1”. Therefore it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s a great rebounder and shot blocker. He can certainly score inside, but Payne is also able to face up and hit a mid-range jumper. According to, Payne is making an impressive 56% of his shots away from the basket this season. 

Other players to watch: 

        - Denzel Valentine (6.1p, 4.2r) is a big guard (6’5”) that passes the ball well, but he’s also a freshman who will make mistakes.

         Travis Trice (5.5p) is 12/28 (42.9%) from 3-point range this year after shooting 40.5% as a freshman.

        - Outside threat Russell Byrd and wing Brandan Kearney have been dreadful from deep, shooting a combined 18.8% 3FG (9/48), but the 6’7” Byrd especially can’t be left alone with space. [Update: On Friday afternoon 12/28/12, MSU announced Kearney was leaving the program].

J.B. Bauer

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Tag(s): Gopher Basketball