Preseason rankings don’t mean much. Every year, there are at least a few teams who don’t perform like they should. Other teams come out of nowhere and surprise by climbing into the top 25. For example, the team that has started the year ranked #9 has missed the NCAA Tournament four of the last ten years. It’s a crazy stat. This season, the Big Ten was full of top 25 ranked teams. Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State and Illinois were perennially good teams, but for Michigan and Minnesota, this would be the first time in recent memory where they found their way into the top 25 before the first shot was taken. However, both teams were shown the door early. A three game losing streak did in the Gophers, while Michigan has racked up an 8-7 record in its first 15 games. Minnesota, however, has quietly worked their way back up, winning eight of their last nine, the only exception coming in a road beating at the hands of Purdue. Now, they get another conference road test. It comes against #7 Michigan State (3-0, 13-3), who play host to Minnesota (3-1, 12-4), who need a marquee win or two to regain that national ranking.
Tubby Smith’s Golden Gophers are one of the few teams who can claim that every player, not suspended or redshirted, sees at least ten minutes of action every game. Although they only have 11 players (Royce White is no longer with the team, Trevor Mbakwe is still sitting out and Dominique Dawson is redshirting), that’s an astounding feat. The Gophers are led by senior guard Lawrence Westbrook and senior forward Damian Johnson. This experience will bode well for the team as March approaches. Westbrook is reprising his role as the team’s leading scorer, a position he held last year as well. Johnson is one of the best defenders in the country, as well as one of the only players who can boast two blocks and two steals per game. Point guard Al Nolen is seventh on the team in scoring, but his assist to turnover ratio is among the best in the Big Ten. In three of the Gophers’ four losses, Nolen has fallen short of reaching his assists average. That’s not a coincidence; his ball distribution is necessary for the team’s success. Junior shooting guard Blake Hoffarber is famous for his acrobatic shots in both his high school and college careers, but this season is making a name for himself for being one of the nation’s best shooters. At 52%, he’s tops for everyone who has taken over 75 threes. Underclassmen Devoe Joseph and Justin Cobbs round out the backcourt. Joseph is one of the team’s most efficient scorers, and does a good job rebounding and passing as well. Cobbs doesn’t see many minutes, at least in comparison to his teammates, but still chips in around 3 points a game. The two big men are Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III. Both are only sophomores, but have taken on big roles within the team, especially Sampson III, who leads the team in rebounding and is a formidable shot blocker. High-flying freshman Rodney Williams is known for his athleticism, but after scoring in double digits the first three games of the year, Williams has yet to do that again. His scoring average is just 1.25 points a game in Gopher losses. He needs to step up and regain that early season swagger. Paul Carter has been consistently providing solid play off the bench all season, and with some key players graduating next year, has also proven he can score big, going for 15 against the strong Purdue defense. Devron Bostick was suspended for much of the non-conference season. The senior is on and off, some games he’ll register 8 point, 6 rebounds and a few steals, others he won’t score, won’t rebound and won’t steal. In order to beat Michigan State, Tubby will need able performances from Bostick and Williams.
Michigan State got off to a slow start, but they may be getting their moxie back. Three wins to open conference play was a nice start, but the fact that two came on the road and the other was against #14 Wisconsin is great. They’ve climbed back up to #7, and a three game home stretch starts tonight. The obvious name to point out would be that of reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas. Lucas is having another solid year. His assist numbers have gone down, but he’s scoring more, and his backup, Korie Lucious, is more than making up for the assists. The pint-sized Lucious dishes out over 4 a game, this coming off the bench. As a sophomore, he’ll have one more year to hone his craft under Lucas before taking over the starting role his senior season. Power forward Draymond Green is built like Charles Barkley, and his consistent scoring and strong rebounding at 6-6 suggest a Barkley-esque skill set. But Sir Charles could always pass, and Green is one of the best passing big men in the country. Delvon Roe and Raymar Morgan, who join Green in the frontcourt, are taller than their counterpart. Roe is a traditional big man, he enjoys getting the ball in the post. Morgan is more versatile, he can put the ball on the floor and take threes, but doesn’t possess the low block skills that Roe does. Two more Spartans join the seven man rotation, with each player averaging over 20 minutes a game. Gunner Chris Allen is Tom Izzo’s best shooter, and Durrell Summers is one of the most athletic players in the Big Ten. Summers was huge down the stretch of the Final Four run last year for Michigan State, and he showed serious NBA potential against Gonzaga in November. Adding frontcourt depth are freshmen Derrick Nix and Garrick Sherman. The monstrous Nix is perhaps best known for his free throw shooting, or lack of. He’s a cool 15% from the charity stripe. The seldom-used Sherman has a similar stat line to Nix.
Minnesota is playing well, but Michigan State has always played well at home, and will continue to do so. The Spartans should continue to cruise in conference play, 67-54.