EAST LANSING — Remember just one month ago when the Golden Gophers were arguably the best team in the nation? Well, the Michigan State Spartans do.
The then-No. 9 Minnesota Golden Gophers (17-5, 5-4) opened the Big Ten season with a 76-63 victory over the then-No. 18 Michigan State Spartans (18-4, 7-2) on the last day of 2012.
Fast forward a little more than a month later, and the Gophers and Spartans are two completely different teams.
Since the Big Ten opening day loss, the No. 12 Spartans have won seven of their last eight — with their only lose coming on the road at Indiana.
Michigan State struggled to get any frontcourt offensive efficiency from Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix in that loss (combined 7-of-21 for 14 points), now, they’ve figured out how to make the big man combination work in their favor.
The Spartans scored only two points in the final seven minutes, now, junior guard Keith Appling has emerged as the undisputed closer of the team.
Tom Izzo’s ball club has improved greatly since the loss at Williams Arena, however, the same can’t be said for Tubby Smith’s Golden Gophers.
Minnesota started the new year as hot as they left the old one. The Golden Gophers won their first two games of 2013 against Northwestern and Illinois by a combined total of 35 points. The immediate future looked very bright for Minnesota, until they rolled into Assembly Hall.
Minnesota suffered their first Big Ten loss at Indiana which jump started a troublesome January, as they went on to lose their next three games.
Maybe Minnesota’s fall off was due to the level of competition they faced during that period (Indiana, Michigan, (at) Northwestern, and Wisconsin), but for a team that was once in the top-10 that can’t be a noteworthy excuse.
On a brighter note, Minnesota has gotten back to their winning ways as they’ve defeated Nebraska and Iowa in their past two games, and they’re still rebounding at a high level.
This week Izzo said that this team is one of the “worst” rebounding teams that he has ever had, but if the Spartans want to be victorious over the ailing Gophers they MUST rebound on both ends of the floor.
Minnesota ranks 21st in the nation in rebounds per game, and their big man Trevor Mbakwe leads the way with 8.5 per game.
The winner of this game will come down to who is more physical and who is more active on the glass.
A win for MSU will show how far they have come through the midway point of the Big Ten season, and a win for Minnesota could turn them back in the right direction in the final stretch of the regular season.
Note: It’s still uncertain whether MSU will be without freshman guard Gary Harris (back) and sophomore guard Travis Trice (concussion).