Friday, January 4, 2008

Tubby v. Izzo Saturday Night

The scheduling Gods did Tubby Smith and the Golden Gophers no favors, as they open Big Ten play Saturday night with a trip to East Lansing to take on the league's premier coach and team.

A few years from now it will be interesting to see who is getting the best of this coaching match-up, but for now Tom Izzo and his Michigan State Spartans are clearly among the cream of the crop in the Big Ten. In their careers, Izzo and Smith have met seven times, with Izzo holding a 4-3 head-to-head advantage. The Gophers will need quite a few breaks this weekend for Smith to even that mark.

The Spartans are simply loaded as far as Big Ten teams go. Drew Neitzel is the kind of play-making guard that teams need to win in power conferences or to make runs in the NCAA Tournament. Sophomore Raymar Morgan has blossomed into a star, increasing his scoring average from 11 points per game to 17 points and seven rebounds per game this season. Center Goran Suton is a tested big man who can control the glass for the Spartans and provide scoring in the paint. And that's just the names you know. The Spartans also have impressive freshman point guard Kalin Lucas, who combines with Neitzel to form arguably the Big Ten's best back court tandem. There's also Flint, Michigan native Marquise Gray taking up quality minutes at forward and freshman guard Durrell Summers.

The Spartans' depth, which goes beyond the names listed above, gives Izzo the luxury of playing with different match ups, keeping pressure on defensively and pushing the basketball.

And the Spartans' 12-1 record can't be written off as the product of a cupcake-filled schedule. You might remember the embarrassing exhibition loss to Grand Valley State, but that is a long ways back in Michigan State's rear view mirror. Since the games started to count, the Spartans have played four ranked teams—UCLA, BYU, Texas and North Carolina State—and their only misstep came in Los Angeles. Make no mistake, the Gophers will have their hands full Saturday night.

What needs to happen for the Gophers to win:

** Dan Coleman must be the aggressor offensively and lead the Gophers. He has a tendency to disappear against top-notch competition. On Saturday, Coleman needs to be Minnesota's answer to Raymar Morgan.

** Minnesota's guards need to protect the basketball, get the team into its sets offensively and create turnovers. That's a tall task for freshman Al Nolen and Lawrence McKenzie, who is being forced to play out of position at point guard. If the Gophers are forced to start their offensive sets well beyond the three point line—as was the case at UNLV—it's going to be a long night for Minnesota.

** Spencer Tollackson needs to be the capable big man we all thought he could be.

** Blake Hoffarber, Jamal Abu-Shamala, Lawrence McKenzie and Lawrence Westbrook need to hit from the perimeter to stretch the Spartans' defense.

** Damian Johnson and Jon Williams need to provide smart, energy-filled minutes off the bench. That means rebounding and blocking shots.

And even if all of that happens, the Gophers will still be long shots to win in East Lansing. As someone who wants to measure the progress of this team, I'll be pleased if the Gophers remain competitive. The first Tubby v. Izzo battle in the Big Ten has the potential to be very lopsided. I'll predict an MSU win by 15, a result I'd actually be rather impressed by.

After the opener, the Gophers head into two winnable games—at home against Northwestern and at Penn State. After that, the schedule gets quite tough again as Indiana comes to town before Izzo and the Spartans come to the Barn for a rematch. If the Gophers are 3-2 after the first five Big Ten games, we'll all have a lot to cheer about.

The game is on the Big Ten Network at 7 p.m. central time. I'm going to attempt to live blog the game, so if you lack access to the BTN, I'll try to entertain you here.

4 comments:

Friend Of Tubby said...

I think Gophers keep it close(er than mant expect) but L by 7 or 8.

The 6 games between Tubby and Izzo have been decided by 1 to 7 point margins.

Scott said...

Actually the misstep came to UCLA in Kansas City, Missouri, in the BCE Classic and not in Los Angeles... Anyhow, right on. Nice game, Tubby put together a tough, gritty game plan.

PJS said...

Thanks for the correction, Scott.

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