Thursday night marks the first and only regular season meeting between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Michigan State Spartans in the 2014-15 season, and it comes on the Spartans’ home floor inside the Breslin Center.
Back in 2013-14, the Golden Gophers and Spartans only met once, with the Spartans coming away victorious. In East Lansing, the Spartans used a second-half comeback to force overtime against Minnesota, and then took the game over. Michigan State outscored the Gophers 16 – 4 in the five-minute overtime period, and rolled to the 87 – 75 victory behind 24 points from Keith Appling. In 2014-15, Minnesota is looking to avenge last season’s loss, and play the role of spoiler in terms of Michigan State’s run at an NCAA Tournament bid.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers entered the season with high aspirations for 2014-15, but have yet to fulfill those in Big Ten play. After a season-opening loss to the Louisville Cardinals in the “Battle of the Pitino Family”, the Gophers put together a relatively strong non-conference slate. They would only lose one more game before conference play began, and that was to the St. John’s Red Storm inside Madison Square Garden. The Gophers would close out non-conference play with eight straight victories, a streak that included victories over the likes of Georgia, Wake Forest, and UNC Wilmington. With an 11 – 2 record in tow, the Gophers looed primed to make some noise in the weaker-than-usual Big Ten conference.
However, Big Ten play has not been kind to the Golden Gophers. Last season’s NIT champions enter Thursday night’s tilt with a 5 – 10 record in conference play, and a 16 – 12 record overall. Minnesota lost their first five conference games, and currently find themselves riding a three-game losing streak in conference play. Outside of a three-game winning streak from January 27th to February 12th, Big Ten play has been painful for Minnesota fans and players alike. They should still be in consideration for an NIT berth, simply because they won the field last year, but they will have to earn it down the stretch.
Thursday night, Minnesota will look to play the role of spoiler and put a wrench in the tournament aspirations of the Michigan State Spartans. However, the Spartans enter the game playing their best basketball of the year, and are looking to solidify their spot in the field of 68.
Michigan State went through some rough patches in non-conference play, but they appear to be a distant memory with the way the Spartans are playing in conference action.
Outside of their season sweep to the Maryland Terrapins within the first five games of conference action, the Spartans have turned things around for themselves on the season thanks to some great play in Big Ten action. The Spartans suffered some questionable losses to a struggling Nebraska team on the road and an under-manned Illinois team in East Lansing. Through the start of Big Ten play, the Spartans had a 4 – 3 record.
After their loss to the Cornhuskers, the Spartans were on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament field. Since then, Michigan State has played their way into the NCAA Tournament field, being widely predicted as a 7-seed in bracketology predictions. The Spartans have gone an impressive 6 – 1 over their past seven games to erase the memories of their rough start to conference play. They have won their last four contests, with their most recent win coming on the road over Illinois to avenge their earlier loss.
Entering Thursday, the Spartans are 2.5 games back of the conference-leading Wisconsin Badgers, and a half-game behind Maryland for second place in the standings. A win on Thursday would keep the Spartans rolling on all cylinders, keeping them firmly in the NCAA Tournament field and in contention for the conference title with three games to go.
On Thursday night, the game will come down to the play of two forwards in the paint.
Players to Watch
For the visiting Minnesota Golden Gophers, they will need a big game from senior forward Maurice Walker. The 6’10’’ senior out of Scarborough, ON is having his best statistical season for the Golden Gophers in 2014-15, averaging 11.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per contest. He is also shooting an impressive 57.7% from the field on the year, while only averaging 23.8 minutes per contest. He is coming off an 8 point, 9 rebound performance in the Gophers’ 63 – 53 loss to Wisconsin in his last time out. If Minnesota wants to knock off the Spartans on Thursday, Walker will need to have himself a season-best performance, all while keeping the forwards of Michigan State in check.
For the hometown Michigan State Spartans, it would be easy to pick senior forward Branden Dawson. However, sophomore forward Gavin Schilling is the one you need to keep an eye on during the game Thursday night. Schilling is one of the tallest forwards for the Spartans, and will likely draw the match-up of covering Walker. Standing at 6’9’’, the sophomore big man is due for another breakout performance. He’s averaging 6.0 points and 4.2 rebounds in just over 18 minutes of floor time this year. Schilling has done well this season in limited floor time, and will need to keep his strong play going on Thursday. He has failed to record a point in three of his last four contests, but fortunately for him, they have all been wins for the Spartans. Look for Schilling to break out of his slump as he tries to help lead the Spartans to another victory.
Thursday night is the only meeting between Minnesota and Michigan State during the regular season. The Golden Gophers are looking to assume the role of spoiler in East Lansing as they try to deal a blow to the Spartans’ tournament chances while improving their own chances of reaching post-season play. On the other side, Michigan State has been known to play down to the level of their opponents, and are hoping to avoid a lackluster performance on Thursday as they try to keep pace with Maryland and Wisconsin in the conference.
Enjoy this game inside the Breslin Center, as it has big post-season implications for both teams!