Conference play starts tomorrow, with no. 19 Michigan State and no. 11 Minnesota matching up in a New Years’s Eve matinee. Both teams have had good non-conference slates and there are some interesting match-ups within this game. Let’s take a look.
The battle down low should be fascinating. Both teams have big bodies, and like to bang around in the paint. For Minnesota, Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe make up the strong, experienced front court. Both big men are averaging 9 points, Williams has 4 rebounds a game and Mbakwe has 7 boards a game. The duo makes an even bigger impact defensively, where they protect the paint well and block shots. Williams and Mbakwe have a combined win share of just below 5, meaning they have added 5 wins, through 13 games to Minnesota.
Their Spartan counterparts are Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix. Payne and Nix have early identical statistics, both averaging approximately 9 points and 8 rebounds per game. Both players, when they avoid foul trouble, control the paint very well.
It could be argued that whichever team wins this battle and controls the paint will win the game. Minnesota has more athletic bigs, while Michigan State’s are just really large. The fact that Mbakwe still is not 100% after ACL surgery last year could hamper him tomorrow, and his conditioning and spring are two things to keep an eye on.
The other major factor between the Spartans and Gophers will be the perimeter scoring. Minnesota brings a trio of scorers from their back court, in Joe Coleman, Austin Hollins and Andre Hollins. All three average double figures. Andre Hollins, in particular, has the ability to go off offensively. He scored 41 points in a win over Memphis in the Battle for Atlantis, on 9-12 from the field and 5-5 on three pointers. Hollins is the x-factor in this game.
For Michigan State, Kieth Appling and Gary Harris supply the scoring. Harris is averaging 12 points a game, while Appling is scoring 15 points a game. Appling brings a good pace to the offense at point guard, while the star freshman, Harris, has shown why he was so highly touted as a recruit.
The two match-ups; the battle in the paint and perimeter scoring, will decide who wins tomorrow. Both teams obviously want to get off to a quick start in conference play. Michigan State and Minnesota are likely as close in quality to each other as any two teams in the Big Ten. I give the edge to the Spartans, purely because they have played a ton of big games already. But, it really is a toss up.
The Spartans and Gophers tip-off at 4 EST on ESPN2.