Saturday, January 19, 2008

Izzo, Morgan Come To The Barn For Round Two

Likely still reeling from the loss to the Indiana Hoosiers, Tubby Smith's Gophers will need to pick themselves up in short order, forget about the heartbreaking loss on Thursday and come with their best performance of the year if they are going to upend the 11th ranked Michigan State Spartans Sunday afternoon.

Expectations for the Gophers season spiked after they went to East Lansing to face these same Spartans for the Big Ten opener. Because the Gophers had previously struggled mightily on the road against top-notch opponents--think UNLV and Florida State--the line of thinking was the Spartans would win handily. But the Gophers exceeded expectations and had numerous chances to upset Tom Izzo's Spartans.

The Gophers stayed in that game, in part, because they forced the Spartans to shoot outside, playing a lot of 2-3 zone. The Spartans shot just 20 percent from beyond the arc. Specifically, Drew Neitzel struggled, shooting 0-6 from three. But the Gophers didn't have an answer for sophomore phenom Raymar Morgan, who put up a career high 31 points, adding 10 rebounds to boot.

The Spartans also did well to push the ball up the floor after Minnesota possessions. The Gophers didn't get back on defense well, and Morgan and others benefited. To pull the upset on Sunday, the Gophers will need to slow Morgan and make sure they don't give the Spartans easy transition baskets.

The Gophers were also hurt during the Big Ten opener on the glass. The Spartans out-rebounded the Gophers 48-25. If such a discrepancy exists again, the Gophers will lose.

And as has too often been the case, Dan Coleman disappeared in a big game. He found himself in early foul trouble early and finished with a measly six points and two rebounds. That, too, can't happen again.

So, there are the reasons for pessimism: The Gophers might not have had time to recover from the loss to Indiana. The Gophers have no answer for Morgan. The Spartans are a superior team in transition and on the glass.

But, there are reasons to think an upset is feasible as well.

The fact is, since the conference season began, Sparty has been unimpressive. After the opening win against the Gophers, the Spartans held off an upstart Purdue team at home by three. Then the Spartans went to Iowa City and watched as the lowly Hawkeyes slowed down the pace of the game to win 43-36. Back at home against Ohio State on Tuesday, the Spartans jumped out to a quick lead in the first half by pushing tempo. But, again, Ohio State slowed tempo and the Spartans looked very beatable.

Their trip to Williams Arena will be just their second road conference game of the season. If the Spartans struggled in Iowa, it's safe to assume they could struggle in Minneapolis.

Keys to the Game:

** Dan Coleman needs to show up this time.

** Spencer Tollackson needs to bounce back.

** Lawrence Westbrook and Lawrence McKenzie need to lessen MSU's edge in the back court. MSU's Neitzel, Travis Walton and Kalin Lucas bring different strengths to the floor. Slowing down this group, forcing turnovers and pressuring their three-point attempts will be key.

** The Gophers desperately need to find an answer for Raymar Morgan. Damian Johnson has started two straight games drawing defensive match ups against Geary Claxton, and at times, Eric Gordon. I expect to see the Gophers put Johnson on Morgan, who abused Jamal Abu-Shamala in East Lansing.

** Slow the tempo. The Gophers need to find a balance between getting easy baskets in transition and frustrating the Spartans by slowing the game down. We need to run when we can but orchestrate quality, time-consuming possessions the vast majority of the time.

** Execute down the stretch. Even in the comeback at Penn State, the Gophers gave the Nittany Lions three chances in the last minute to win the game. A late turnover cost us against Indiana. The Gophers need to make their free throws if this is a close game and get good shots when the game is on the line. So far this season, we haven't done that.

Prediction: It would be easy for me to pick the Gophers, pointing to MSU's struggles on the road against Iowa. But I don't think the Gophers have an answer for Morgan. And the Spartans will not take the Gophers lightly. They will come ready to play--and have had since Tuesday to prepare for this game. Meanwhile, the Gophers could well be still recovering from the IU loss. I think the Gophers lose another close one: 69-64.


alex said...

"I think the Gophers another close one: 69-64."

Missing the most important word of the sentence, but since we haven't won any close ones, it looks likely that you're predicting a loss. I agree with your assessment, sadly.

PJS said...

You see, Alex, I was trying to have it both ways!

Kidding. Typo. It should have read "I think the Gophers lose another close one: 69-64."

I'm going to fix it in the post.

From the Barn said...

I'm about 99% sure Johnson didn't start against Indiana.

Friend Of Tubby said...

Gophers by 2. Somehow.

PJS, though I don't agree with some of it, here is the best such article I've ever read on Tubby.

Especially the paragraph on what Kentucky is like (near the end).

PJS said...

FOT, You're right, that was a good post. After the Sunday game, I'll do a post to let others know about it.

FTB, Hmm, I thought DJ had started. But then, I suppose, out East here, I didn't get to see the start of the game. I think they swtiched us to the start of the game when it was 4-3.

If DJ didn't start, I'm sorry for the error.

From The Barn said...

Jamal did start, and it isn't suprsinging he was firmly planted on the bench by that point. But at least his black eye is finally healing!

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