Friday, December 31, 2010

Game Preview: Minnesota Gophers vs. Michigan State Spartans

I'm trying like hell to muster up the energy to write a preview for this game, but I'm struggling.  The Spartans may just be 8-4, but it's an awfully good 8-4, with all four losses coming to some of the country's top teams.  Still, their loss last week to Texas at home gives Gopher fans some hope - maybe they can pull out an upset as well.  Unfortunately, stats say the Gophers may be just what the Spartans need, rather than the other way around.

Michigan State's issue this year hasn't been their defense, although they did play poorly at times against Texas.  The Spartans rank 14th in the nation in defensive efficiency, and that's despite playing some very good offensive teams (Duke #1 off. efficiency, Syracuse #8).  So you know they're going to be tough to score on, and that's their strength.

Their issue is on offense, where they rank 47th, just one spot better than the Gophers.  But where that ranking is about where the Gophers should find themselves, for a supposedly elite squad that has ranked #28, #20, #12, #38, #18, #6, and #12 the past 7 years, it's troubling, particularly since they have most of the same team back from last season. 

Although Sparty hasn't shot the ball particularly well (140th from 2 compared to 40th last year), their biggest issue has been turnovers, which have risen from 21.3% of their possessions last year, still not very good, all the way to 23% this year, one of the worst marks in the country.  Unfortunately, the Gophers have become a below average team at turning opponents over, taking the ball away on just 20.6% of their opponents possessions vs. a national average of 21.0%.  Couple that with their inability to defend the perimeter shot, which just so happens to be Michigan State's one major strength on offense, as well as this being in East Lansing, and it's another tough road for Minnesota.

Their best shot would be to go with a strategy that works, again and again, but they have trouble sticking with:  pound the ball inside.  According to's team page for the Gophers, the Gophers have six players who use at least 20% of the team's possessions when they are on the court - meaning 20% of the time the player either misses or makes the team's shot, or turns the ball over.  Of the six, five of them have a better than average efficiency rating - Ralph Sampson, Colt Iverson, Mo Walker, Trevor Mbakwe, and Devoe Joseph.  Notice something?  Four of those five are big guys.  Walker is out for the year, obviously and unfortunately, but the other three need the ball and they need it a lot.  They are what makes this whole team work.

That is also exactly where Michigan State's defense can be exploited.  They aren't really built to stop size.  Delvon Roe is their main frontcourt player, and he's completed stagnated in his development (and is on my fantasy team - go me), although he is a decent defensive player.  Behind him, however, are Garrick Sherman and Adreian Payne - neither of whom play that much.  Michigan State is a perimeter oriented team this year, and it shows.  Texas's Tristan Thompson lit them up for 17 & 15.  Oakland's center Keith Benson went for 17 & 12.  Rick Jackson of Syracuse put up 17 & 16, and even Mason freaking Plumlee was able to toss up a 10 & 10.

There are double-doubles to be had, and the Gophers have several players capable of putting them up.  If the Gophers pound the ball inside and feed Sampson.  Feed Reign Man II.  Feed Iverson, they have a fighting chance, particularly if they can figure out a way to play some capable defense.  This game is winnable.

However, I'm not buying it.  Even if it's working, this team seemingly has an addiction to avoiding sound strategies.  Michigan State will have to play either Sherman, Payne, or Derrick Nix more often than they're accustomed to due to the Gophers' size on the inside.  I'm predicting a breakout game for one of them (smart money is on Payne), a good first half that sees the Gophers either leading or close going into the half, and then a second half made up of poor offensive possessions by Minnesota, including a lot of passing around the perimeter.  Also, this will be the game where we remember the bad parts about the Hoff.

Michigan State 80, Minnesota 70.

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