The Minnesota Golden Gophers (10-2) visit East Lansing to face No.6 Michigan State (12-1) as booth teams open their Big Ten schedule on Saturday night.
The Gophers are led by first year coach Tubby Smith, who made the jump from Kentucky after 10 seasons, taking the Wildcats to the 1998 National Championship, six Sweet Sixteen appearances, four Elite Eight finishes, five SEC titles, and five SEC Tournament titles.
After a rocky season for Minnesota last year under an interim coach, Smith has taken control of his team and has them at 10-2 on the season and third in the Big Ten.
“He’s building that program back up in Minnesota and I think he’s doing a great job of turning it around and I know they will play hard,” said Drew Neitzel.
The Gophers feature a veteran lineup, led by 6-foot-9 senior forward Dan Coleman, who averages 14.8 points and six rebounds per game. Senior Lawrence McKenzie averages 10.7 points per game and 6-foot-9 Spencer Tollackson adds 10.1 points per contest.
“They are much more improved defensively,” said Goran Suton. “They are better in transition, they run more, they don’t take as many bad shots as last year, they are improving in their overall game and a lot has to do with their coach and they are more confident than they have ever been.”
McKenzie is in his second season at Minnesota after transferring from Oklahoma two years ago, and is the Gophers’ biggest threat from three-point range (43 percent).
After playing a lighter non-conference schedule to get the team’s confidence up, Minnesota opens their Big Ten schedule against the best in the Big Ten and the favorite for the Big Ten title this year.
Michigan State’s only loss this season was to then No.1 UCLA in the finals of the CBE Classic.
The Spartans are coming off a win over Wisconsin Green-Bay last Saturday and before that knocked off then No.4 Texas on Dec. 22.
Led by the inside-outside threat of Drew Neitzel and Raymar Morgan, the Spartans have one of the deepest teams in the country this season, often wearing teams down in the later portions of the game, much like they did to the Longhorns.
The tall bodies of Coleman and Tollackson, as well as junior forward Jamal Abu-Shamala will give Goran Suton, Marquise Gray, Drew Naymick and the other Spartans big-men a real test inside.
“I know Spencer (Tollackson) very well, I played with him on the Big Ten tour a couple of years ago,” said Suton. “He’s a big body, post player, I’m going to be physical with him and make him take tough shots and play solid.”
“They might cause some mismatch problems on us, like Coleman and Tollackson, they are a better defensive team and I think that has a lot to do with their coach, so we have to come out ready to play, the Big Ten is sometimes underrated, I think it is going to be a great year and you can’t take any teams for granted,” added Suton.
Stressing the importance of conference play, coach Tom Izzo has had his players go through several two-a-day practices throughout the last week in preparation.
“Minnesota is one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten and they’re going to contain us and not going to let us score like that,” said Travis Walton. “We are expecting a lot of our team, we need to pick out the little things because it’s the little things that matter the most, in the past two years we’ve started out 8-8 and we have to start out well this year.”
After starting their conference schedule with two straight road games the last two years and an 0-2 records, the Spartans will be home for their first two conference games this year, where they are 9-0 this season.
“We want to get off to a good start, we start with two home games, “said Neitzel. “But they have a lot of senior leadership and those guys are playing well right now, it’s going to be a tough game.”