Preview & Prediction: By Raphielle Johnson
The Big Ten opener for both #10 Michigan State (9-2) and #21 Minnesota (12-0) takes place on New Year’s Eve afternoon, giving both teams a chance to not only close out 2008 on a positive note but also spring into 2009. There’s no surprise in the fact that the Spartans are one of the favorites in the Big Ten, but for Tubby Smith to have the Golden Gophers undefeated at this point in the season? Not even the most optimistic Minnesota fan could have called that, especially when the current run included an impressive beating of Louisville out in Glendale a couple of weeks ago. For a Minnesota team that relies on a number of young contributors, this game offers an opportunity to prove that they’re indeed a player in the conference race.
Six Minnesota players average at least seven points per game, and the kicker is none of them are seniors. Juniors Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson lead the way as far as scoring goes, but the guy who makes the engine run is sophomore point guard Al Nolen. The hometown kid is averaging more than six assists per game, and in his last four games he’s got thirty-one assists to just five turnovers. It’s one thing to distribute the ball to teammates in position to do damage, but when you can do that while taking care of the basketball then you’re well on your way to being an outstanding floor general. Highly-touted freshmen Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson have also been contributors for Coach Smith, but the play of the returnees has relieved some of the pressure that could have fallen upon their shoulders had that not been the case.
As for the Spartans, this is a team that improved substantially once big man Goran Suton was healthy enough to get back on the court. Adding his return with the development (more so from a health standpoint than skill) of freshman Delvon Roe has made Tom Izzo’s team that much better inside, where he’s already got some bangers in the likes of Marquise Gray and the talented Raymar Morgan. Morgan leads the Spartans in scoring with just over fifteen per game, supplemented by the perimeter play of Kalin Lucas and sharpshooter Chris Allen. Sophomore Durrell Summers has also played better of late, reaching double figures in each of Michigan State’s last three games, including a win over Texas in Houston in which he knocked down the game winning three-pointer.
Williams Arena can be a house of horrors for visiting conference teams, but these Spartans have been through some tough environments both within and outside of the Big Ten. And when you’ve arguably become the flagship program for the conference, you become accustomed to having that bull’s eye on your chest. But there hasn’t been a game this anticipated in “The Barn” for some time now, so the Spartans had better be focused on the task at hand. If the Spartans can weather the early storm sure to come from the Golden Gophers they’ll be okay, which is exactly how I see this game going.
Winner: Michigan State Margin: 5-9 pts.
Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.
-- The Big Ten features another interesting opener on New Year’s Eve, as #41 Michigan St. (9-2) travels to face #21 Minnesota (12-0)
Michigan St. had a shaky start to the season, losing badly to Maryland in the Old Spice Classic and to North Carolina at Ford Field. The Spartans have gotten back on track since the UNC blowout, though, including beating Texas in Houston just before the holiday break. Minnesota has just one marquee win, beating a travel-weary Louisville team on a neutral floor, but also has wins over decent opponents such as Cornell and Virginia.
It should come as no surprise that Tom Izzo’s Michigan St. team pounds the ball down low, taking more than 3/4s of its shots from inside the arc. The Spartans are quite effective with this strategy, making over 50% of two-point attempts, and hitting a good percentage of their infrequent three attempts. One of the keys to their strong run of late has been the recovery of their offensive rebounding, which was disappointing in the early season, but has really improved of late. This improvement may be especially important in this game, as the Gophers have been poor on the defensive glass. Minnesota will be able to force turnovers, but if it can’t answer Michigan St. inside, it may not matter.
Minnesota doesn’t send the ball inside as often as Michigan St., but shoots a better two point percentage, and can score from distance as well. The Gophers are solid on the offensive glass, but they have had trouble with turnovers. They should try and focus on three-point shooting, as the Spartans have not defended the three point line effectively thus far. Michigan St. is good on the defensive interior, keeping opponents to a low two-point percentage and getting a lot of defensive rebounds.
Michigan St.’s recent strength has been helped by the return of senior center Goran Suton, an excellent inside scorer and rebounder. The Spartans have a couple of other inside options in Raymar Morgan, a 65% shooter who leads the team in rebounding and scoring, and freshman Delvon Roe, who hasn’t taken many shots, but has shot a good percentage on the ones he’s taken. All three typically start in a very big front three, with senior Marquise Gray another effective scorer off the bench. Kalin Lucas leads the Big Ten in both assists and assist/turnover ratio, committing only 11 turnovers so far this season. His problem has been shooting, and Michigan St. will be better off when possessions don’t end in his hands. Senior Travis Walton also starts, and is a bit of an aberration as a 6-2 guard with just 4 three point attempts. Durrell Summers is an important player off the bench, and has shot over 50% from three. Chris Allen also comes off the bench from the backcourt, and takes a lot of shots, while maintaining a decent percentage, especially from behind the arc.
Minnesota has a very deep team, with 10 players averaging at least 14 minutes off the bench. Sophomore Al Nolan plays the most minutes, and is a effective point guard while he’s on the floor, third in the conference in assists and second in steals, while also controlling turnovers well. Blake Hoffarber and Lawrence Westbrook have split the other starts in the backcourt, Westbrook leading the team in scoring with strong three-point and free-throw shooting and Hoffarber hitting 50% from the floor and over 45% from three. Travis Busch and Devoe Joseph also see time off the bench. Up front, Colton Iverson leads the team in rebounding, with just over 4 per game, and has shot over 60% from the floor so far. Damion Johnson has shot nearly 60% in the frontcourt and averages over 2 steals and 2 blocks a game, but is under 50% from the free throw line. Freshman Ralph Sampson III has started four times this year, and seems to be in line for the start in this one. Unsurprisingly for a freshman, he’s been inconsistent, but is coming in off a career-best performance against High Point. Jamal Abu-Shamala has been effective off the bench, while sophomore Paul Carter has really struggled with his shot.
Michigan St. with Goran Suton are a very different team than the Suton-less squad that picked up the two losses, and they should be good enough to see off the Gophers. If Minnesota manages to effectively shoot over the Spartans, however, it will have a very good chance to stay undefeated.
Winner: Michigan St. Margin: 2-6
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About Raphielle Johnson
College sports has always been a source of excitement for Raphielle Johnson, be it through watching, writing, or taking a shot in the dark and walking onto a college football team just to live the life (Arizona Football, 2001). Raphielle is the assistant editor, providing his own work in addition to helping out with the site operations. When not writing for CHN, you can usually find him in front of a television set watching one of many pay-per-view sports packages that he owns. He can be followed at twitter.com/raphiellej.
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