Third time’s the charm, right?
The Michigan State Spartans were the Achilles’ heel of the Minnesota Golden Gophers this season. The Spartans won both regular season matchups with the Gophers, the first halting a six-game Minnesota winning streak and the second just four games later to cut another Gophers run.
The second of those losses led to a five-game skid for Richard Pitino’s bunch, but Minnesota responded with eight straight wins before dropping the regular season finale against Wisconsin.
The loss to Wisconsin dropped the Gophers to the 4-seed, which means another contest with the Spartans in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.
The 4-5 matchup tips Friday attentively at 2:25 p.m. (25 minutes after the conclusion of Purdue and Michigan) ET in Washington, D.C. Let’s take a look at several key factors for today’s game.
1. Can Nate Mason be contained?
The one constant in Minnesota’s two losses against Michigan State was its starting point guard.
Mason scored 18 and 14 points, respectively, in the two games on 11 of 29 (38 percent) shooting. He also had just two combined turnovers, including a mistake-free night in the Jan. 11 loss.
Mason’s numbers have been climbing heading into Friday’s matchup.
He averaged 19.4 points during the Gophers’ eight-game winning streak; he also had a 10-rebound night, two eight-assist nights and a seven-assist night during that same stretch of games and had an assist-turnover ratio of 4.6.
He’s been Minnesota’s Mr. Reliable this season, and with the loss of Eron Harris in the Michigan State backcourt, it could be another productive day for Mason.
2. Can Minnesota rebound?
Michigan State simply dominated Minnesota on the glass this year.
In the first matchup between the two teams — a 75-74 Michigan State overtime win — the Spartans won the rebound matchup 46-39, despite 21 rebounds from Jordan Murphy. In the second game, Michigan State destroyed the Gophers on the boards, 42-29.
The irony of the situation is that Minnesota is actually a statistically better rebounding team on the season. The Gophers average 40 boards per game compared to 36 from the Spartans.
Michigan State is led by Miles Bridges and Nick Ward inside, Sparty’s two leading scorers and rebounders. Bridges, a 6-foot-7, 230 pound guard averages 16.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, while 6-foot-8, 250-pound Ward goes for 13.6 and 6.3 a night.
Murphy averages 8.7 boards per game, but he can’t box out both of Michigan State’s big men. Amir Coffey, Minnesota’s second-leading scorer, is 6-8 but just 195 pounds and averages only 3.9 rebounds per game.
Somebody else is going to have to help Murphy on the glass or Bridges and Ward could have a heyday in the paint.
3. Can Minnesota’s bench keep up?
Minnesota’s starting five has been fairly consistent throughout the season, but it’s also been needed to keep the Gophers going.
The Gophers’ starters average 56.3 points combined per game, 74 percent of the team’s 76-point average.
Michigan State, meanwhile, averages just 66 percent of its points from the starting lineup — 47.2 of 72 points.
The bench scoring was key in both of Michigan State’s victories over Minnesota this season. In the overtime win, the Spartans’ bench outscored the Gophers’ bench 40-10. Michigan State held Minnesota’s bench to just 10 points in the second game, as well, outscoring it 16-10.
The loss of Eron Harris makes Michigan State’s bench scoring all the more crucial, although one of those bench players is now thrust into a starting role. Still, Tom Izzo went deeper into his roster in both wins — five deep and eight deep, respectively — while Pitino typically uses just four bench players.
The pressure mounts on the Minnesota starting five, but being outscored easily gives an advantage to Michigan State. The Gophers will have to close that gap or take the advantage altogether to shift the pressure to Michigan State’s starters, especially as they haven’t been held as accountable for the team’s scoring.