MSU travels to MInneapolis on Saturday to face the Golden Gophers in a semi-important game for the Spartans. MSU is coming off its first loss of the season, falling to Iowa on the road. The loss occurred for many reasons but one of the biggest was that MSU could not match Iowa’s energy and effort level for much of the game. That can’t happen again, certainly not against a Minnesota team which is now under .500 overall on the season, something you rarely see for a Big Ten team in the beginning of January. Expectations are that Denzel Valentine will sit this game out.

Tom Izzo is 2-1 vs. Richard Pitino, losing their most recent meeting in East Lansing last year in an infamous overtime game where the Spartan head coach saw some criticism around the way he handled an end of game situation relative to fouling or allowing a 3 point attempt. Izzo is 28-11 overall vs. Minnesota for his career and is 11-6 at Williams Arena.

BACKCOURT – Nate Mason is a 6’1″ sophomore who was a bit of a surprise last season for Minnesota, emerging as an impact freshman when he hadn’t received much advance billing. Now in his second season, Mason is a key guy for the Gophers but he’s not quite matched his performance level from last year, when he was able to play off some more experienced guards. He’s second on the team in scoring at 12.3ppg but he hasn’t shot as well as last season, when he was at 41/39%. So far this year, he’s shooting 38/29%. Mason is a guy who can shoot the deep ball but over his short Minnesota career, he takes only about 1/3 of his attempts from outside the arc, so he’s more interested in using his quickness to get shots closer to the rim. He does shoot free throws well but hasn’t gotten there a ton so far (though with MSU’s containment issues, that shouldn’t be seen as a given for this game). He’s also their top decision maker, a solid if less than completely dynamic floor leader. Carlos Morris will start at the other guard. He’s a 6’5″ senior who is third on the team in scoring at 11.9ppg. Morris has been a productive player for the Gophers in his two seasons in Minneapolis but it’s seemed to me that he actually has more to give than he’s shown, considering that he’s an athletic and skilled wing with good size. He’s shooting very well so far, hitting 40/42% but as with Mason, he doesn’t actually shoot a ton of threes despite his accuracy. He’s also the second leading rebounder on a team for whom that’s been a weakness at 4.8 per game.

Pitino goes young off his bench, with a pair of freshmen being the only regular reserve rotation options. Kevin Dorsey was a highly regarded point guard recruit and he’s shown flashes as to why he was seen that way. He has exceptional speed and an aggressive mindset, but the latter element is hindering his production right now, as he’s making poor decisions with the ball and in terms of shot selection. Dorsey has more TOs than assists and is shooting miserably from the floor at 34/21%. He’s a 77% FT shooter, so I suspect his struggles come down to shot selection more than a purely broken stroke. Dupree McBrayer is a 6’4″ freshman who, like Dorsey, is playing about 18 mpg off the Gopher bench. He comes from the same prep school program which produced Tum Tum Nairn and Marv Clark. McBrayer is the kind of long, athletic wing Pitino covets for his system but even more so than Dorsey, he’s struggled with the skill elements of the game so far at the collegiate level. He’s shooting 20/8% and when almost half your shots are coming from deep with that kind of conversion rate, you’ve got a problem. He does have 23 assists to just 9 TOs, so he’s fared well in that part of the game, but his shooting has to improve, and I suspect it will over time.

FRONTCOURT – This is where Minnesota is really down from last year IMO. Maurice Walker wasn’t a perfect player but by the time he was a senior, he’d gotten into shape and figured a lot of things out. They don’t have anything close to that kind of post presence on this team and it’s a big, noticable difference. The main guy has been 6’8″ senior power forward Joey King, who has always done one thing really well and that’s shoot the deep ball. He leads Minnesota in scoring at 13.2ppg and is shooting 46/44% on the season so far. As a veteran, King has figured out how to find space and shots and limiting good looks for him has to be a big part of the defensive emphasis Izzo has in place for this game. Jordan Murphy is a 6’6″ 230lbs freshman who has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal start to the year for UM. He originally committed to Shaka Smart at VCU before he left for Texas and Murphy ended up at Minnesota. He’s scoring 10.8 ppg and leads the Gophers in rebounding at 8.5 per contest. Murphy is a high motor, tough kid who appears willing and able to do dirty work while still possessing enough athleticism to function well in an uptempo system like the one Pitino employs. The starting center is 6’11” sophomore Bakary Konate. Konate is a raw, raw kid. He looks the part of many of the big men Pitino’s dad has had at Louisville but he hasn’t come close to the production yet. He’s averaging less than 5 points and 5 rebounds per game in about 20 minutes of action per contest. One thing he has added is a shotblocking element, averaging about 1.5 per game. The bottom line is that Konate just doesn’t have the kind of skill development yet to be a major impact player.

Off the bench, Pitino will likely play two guys. Charles Buggs is an athletic 6’9″ junior who has finally been able to consistently crack the playing rotation. He’s a useful player, averaging 8ppg and 4.2 rpg while shooting the ball well and giving Minnesota some energy at the forward spot. 6’9″ soph Gaston Diedhiou may also see a brief turn or two on the floor,as he’s the only other legitimate center sized player besides Konate. He’s had an even steeper hill to climb than his classmate in terms of finding ways to produce early on in his career.

THE 5 KEYS

1. Energy – Minnesota is a bad team. I don’t use that word lightly, because most of the time people refer to a team as being “bad” they mean mediocre or less than championship level, which is not actually “bad.” Minnesota is bad, or at least they have been to date. However, one thing Pitino’s teams have done since he’s been there is played with energy. I thought MSU was sluggish against Iowa in the opener. In another road game, the Spartans can’t afford to be outworked that same way.

2. Dribble Penetration – It’s been a theme for awhile now and the Iowa game saw a Hawkeye team which really hadn’t done very much of it just slice and dice the Spartans, earning a ton of trips to the free throw line in the process. Minnesota does much more of that kind of thing by design, and in part it’s because outside of Morris and King and Buggs, they don’t shoot jumpers well. MSU has to find a way to limit penetration without fouling. Simple to say, harder to do, but it’s a key in this one. You don’t want to give a less than stellar offensive team lots of chances at easy points via the FT line.

3. Boards – Minnesota is a bad rebounding team, negative on the year in total rebounds and offensive boards. In terms of offensive rebounding percentage, MSU is 15th in the nation and the Gophers are 257th, one spot behind Michigan. This has to be an area where the Spartans are dominant in this game.

4. Forbes – MSU did not do a good job in getting their best shooter good shot opportunities. Some of that is on Bryn for not working hard enough but some of it was on his teammates as well…I thought MSU’s ball movement was way below par and so often, the window between a shot being open and guarded is just an instant…that’s why Denzel is so valuable because his sense of timing is innate. Regardless, Minnesota is a team which has not guarded the three particularly well and I would think an MSU team intent on freeing #5 up for looks can find him a lot of open shots in this game.

5. TOs – Turnovers were a big part of the loss in Iowa City. Minnesota isn’t generating them from opponents at nearly the level Pitino wants or needs out of his defense, but they will certainly be aggressive and energetic, looking to pressure MSU into enough mistakes to equalize things. This will particularly be something to watch when Tum is not on the floor, as you’re starting to see Big Ten coaching already coming into play in regard to McQuaid…I thought Iowa looked like sharks with blood in the water when he was in the game. Matt’s got to be better but his teammates need to be better helping him as well.

OVERALL – Even without Denzel, this is a game MSU simply has to win and win with relative ease. I don’t mean a 30 point beatdown but just a game where MSU is in control most of the way, and not seriously threatned down the stretch.

Minnesota is a young team with some profound flaws this year. It was easy to see the lack of any interior presence coming but it’s been even more striking than I’d anticipated. I think their defense hasn’t been nearly as good as they’d hoped, and I think they thought Mason might be ready to take the next step forward in his development and instead he seems to have taken a half step back.

MSU needs to play with energy, control the glass, keep its turnovers at least somewhat under control, and do a better job at denying dribble penetration. Do those things reasonably well and this should be a victory.