Key Questions in Advance of Minnesota vs. Michigan State

Posted by Brendan Brody and Alex Moscoso on January 11th, 2014

One of the best games of the Big Ten weekend slate should be in East Lansing this afternoon. Minnesota (13-3, 2-1) takes on Michigan State (14-1, 3-0) in a game that pits a team looking to climb into the the top half of the league against a team looking to get healthy and find some consistency on its way to a national title. RTC Big Ten microsite columnists Brendan Brody and Alex Moscoso decided to take a look at some key questions heading into this interesting match-up.

Andre Hollins needs a big game for Minnesota to pull off an upset in East Lansing.

Andre Hollins needs a big game for Minnesota to pull off an upset in East Lansing.

1. Both teams are relatively equal nationally with Minnesota ranking 44th in offensive rebounding rate, and Michigan State checking in at 45th in defensive rebounding. Who wins the battle of the boards?

Alex Moscoso: For once, I’m going to disregard the numbers and predict that Michigan State wins the rebounding battle under its own basket. When it comes to rebounding, I’m not betting against Tom Izzo, especially when the Spartans are at home. While Michigan State has Adreian Payne as its only consistent low-post presence, wings Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine have stepped up and are accounting for 5.7 and 4.3 defensive rebounds per game, respectively, as well. This should work to their advantage against Minnesota, who shoots a ton of threes (12th in the nation in attempts), and allow them to go after long rebounds. Add to the fact that Payne’s ankle is getting healthier every day, and I think Sparty wins the battle of the boards in this game.

Brendan Brody: Rebounding for Minnesota starts and ends with Elliott Eliason. He’s been pivotal in the Gophers’ efforts on the glass, and with Payne still struggling with some foot issues, look for Eiliason to continue to clean up Minnesota’s misses at a high level. He’s second in the league in grabbing offensive rebounds (13.5%), and he along with Maurice Walker will enable the Gophers to get second-chance opportunities if the Gophers aren’t hitting from deep.

2. Gary Harris and Dre Hollins are both leading their teams in scoring. Which one is more important in this game?

AM: It’s hard to imagine Minnesota winning here without a big game from Andre Hollins, but Michigan State’s Gary Harris will need to play like the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year to win this contest. Minnesota’s best statistical defensive players are their two frontcourt guys, Eliason (defensive rating of 91.2) and Walker (94.4). This means that the Spartans will need to get production from their perimeter players to help spread the offense. Harris is leading the team in scoring (17.8 PPG) and three-pointers made (31), so he’ll need a big game for the Spartans to get their offense going and protect their home court.

BB: Hollins is more important simply because Michigan State has more weapons at its disposal than Minnesota. He’s shooting the ball seven percent worse from three than he did last year (41% to 34%), and he really needs to have a game where he goes well above his 15.0 PPG average for Minnesota to pull off the upset. Deandre Mathieu and Malik Smith haven’t played a hostile environment B1G game yet, so having been through the wars before, Hollins needs to light it up for Minnesota to have a chance.

3. Both teams have hit a high number of threes in recent wins (Minnesota made 11 against Purdue; Michigan State made 11 against Ohio State). Which team needs to capitalize on this facet of their offense more today?

AM: As we mentioned in the previous question, Harris and the rest of the backcourt are going to need to have big games in order to counter the defensive presence of Eliason and Walker. Hitting their threes will open up the offense and give Payne enough space down low to rebound and score in the paint. Additionally, three-point shooting is a significant part of the Spartans’ attack; they make over eight per game and are shooting above 40 percent from deep. In their only loss of the season, Sparty shot under 30 percent against North Carolina. If they shoot poorly from deep against Minnesota, the Gophers have enough shooters of their own to possibly tip things in their favor.

BB: Michigan State has some other options if it isn’t hitting its long balls. Payne can beat you inside and out. Dawson can score around the rim and loves to get to the basket in transition. Minnesota doesn’t have quite as many options, so it’s more vital for the Gophers to get their points from the outside. Both Andre and Austin Hollins need to hit shots early to open up the lane for Mathieu to use his quickness to take Keith Appling off the dribble. This development will also lead to opportunities for Eliason in the lane.

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