No. 2 Michigan State (24-3, 12-2 B1G), which hits the road for three of its last four games of the regular season, travels tonight to Minneapolis to face off with Minnesota (14-13, 3-11 B1G).
The Spartans are coming off one of their biggest wins on the season on Saturday when they knocked off then-No. 3 Purdue 68-65, thanks to a game-winning 3-pointer from Miles Bridges with 2.6 seconds left. The sophomore led MSU with a team-high 20 points on an efficient 9-of-14 shooting night. Bridges, who’s averaging 22.5 points and 3.5 rebounds per game over his last two, was named Big Ten Player of the Week on Monday.
MSU takes a 5-1 road record with them into Williams Arena, having found ways to grind out some gritty victories away from the Breslin Center. Ever since its debacle in Columbus a month ago, the Spartans had yet to find their swagger they had been playing with at the start of the year. The win against Purdue helps bring that moxie back, but we’ll find just how much the Spartans can carry that over tonight.
Prior to the season, Minnesota was a team pegged to make a run at a Final Four and be one of the few teams that could legitimately challenge MSU for the Big Ten title. Instead, the Golden Gophers have dropped their last seven games and 10 of the last 11, enduring some calamitous misfortunes this season that have severely garnered some doubts on the shoulders of six-year head coach Richard Pitino.
Minnesota saw its 7-foot bigman Reggie Lynch get suspended indefinitely back in January with serious expulsion possibilities after he was found guilty of sexual misconduct. Guards Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer have missed nine and three games respectively to injuries this season and both missed their last game against Indiana. It’s still unclear whether those two will be good to go tonight for Pitino’s squad.
Junior Jordan Murphy leads the Golden Gophers with 17.4 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. Murphy is sixth in the Big Ten in scoring and his 11.6 rebound average ranks first in the conference. Senior and 2017 First Team All-Big Ten guard Nate Mason is second on the team in scoring at 16.5 per game and leads the Golden Gophers with 4.2 assists per game. Guard Isaiah Washington was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week last week after a couple of career-high scoring outings in road losses at Iowa and Michigan.
Despite the underwhelming showing from the Golden Gophers this season, Pitino’s crew is tenacious on the glass, coming in at third in the Big Ten with 39.6 rebounds per contest. The Spartans will need to keep Murphy, who ranks sixth in the country in rebounding, off the glass and the Golden Gophers, who as a team pull down 12.2 offensive boards per game.
MSU is going to need much more production from its bigs down the stretch, especially Jaren Jackson Jr. if they want to make a deep postseason run in March. Jackson has played just 16 minutes per game in his last two games largely in part to early foul issues. The big 7-foot freshman poses all kinds of mismatches and many feel that MSU is the most complete team with Jackson on the floor. Watching the games from the bench doesn’t do much to reaffirm that notion.
The Division 1 men’s basketball committee released its top-16 teams as of mid-February on Sunday and the committee felt strongly that MSU was best fit as a three seed and the 11th seed overall. The Spartans résumé has been its only cause for concern this season with their nonconference strength of schedule in the mid-200s and boasting just three wins over Quadrant 1 teams.
With the remaining five games not giving MSU much of a chance to boost its résumé, they’ll need to make a deep run in, or win the Big Ten Tournament to present a valid case as being one of the four teams on the one line when the brackets are officially unveiled March 11.
Tonight’s meeting marks the 129th time these two programs will square off, with MSU leading the overall series 68-60. The Spartans lost the last outing with the Golden Gophers, falling 63-58 last year in the Big Ten Tournament. A win tonight would mark the best start in school history and the best 28-game start in the Tom Izzo era.
With the Big Ten Tournament right around the corner, Michigan State will put its eight-game winning streak on the line, looking to avoid an inopportune upset. Tipoff is scheduled for 9 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN2 with Dave Flemming and Dan Dakich having the call.