MSU used some strong play from its big men and some effective free throw shooting to hold off the Minnesota Golden Gophers for a 69-61 victory at Williams Arena. The win moves the Spartans to 1-1 in the conference.

Reviewing the 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.

RESULT – Not nearly as bad as things were at Iowa, but I think MSU had trouble matching the Gophers’ energy and toughness early on. As the game progressed, things improved, but these guys need to understand that playing teams when you have the target on your back is a different deal. MSU always gets people fired up to play against them, because of what the program represents in terms of long term success, but when you’ve got that 1 beside your name, it’s a level beyond even that. Credit to MSU for finding a way to match it as time moved along.

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.

RESULT – We weren’t perfect by a long shot but better than against Iowa, particularly given that Minnesota actively does look to drive the ball as a big part of their offense. The Gophers attempted 19 free throws…you can live with that if you’re Michigan State (particularly when they only hit 13 of them). MSU was going under screens, which gave up better deep looks to the Gophers but limited the opportunities for their guards to get to the basket off the high pick…in the end, a very smart coaching decision by Tom Izzo when you see Minnesota only go 5-20 from three.

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.

RESULT – Not good at all. Easily the biggest negative for MSU in this game IMO. Minnesota had 16 offensive boards and second chances kept a team shooting only 34% from the floor in the game far longer than they otherwise should have been. Over the final 10 minutes or so, it got much better for MSU as Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis did great work, and that was the key to putting this one in the victory column. However, we are seeing that MSU may miss Denzel more in this one area than any other, as this has been a problem for several games running.

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.

RESULT – Largely successful. Bryn led MSU with 20 points and was able to get 17 shots up. In fact, he probably should have scored even more as he missed several wide open looks you’d normally expect him to make. I thought Bryn worked hard and MSU’s players did a great job finding him and running the offense effectively to free him up without picking up costly offensive fouls on screens.

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.

RESULT – Not terrible. MSU had 11 TOs for the game, which is a bit under 1 fewer per contest that the Gophers are generating. OTOH, I was surprised to not see Minnesota attack MSU more with trapping pressure. That’s something they do as a big part of Pitino’s approach to the game and with Denzel out, I’d have expected to see it more from them. Maybe Pitino will speak to why they didn’t throw more pressure at MSU after the game. Regardless, MSU didn’t give Minnesota a ton of runouts, which is always the big concern in a game like this…you don’t want to make things easier for a bad offensive team.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

1. Big Men – Matt Costello was the headliner but MSU got strong play from all three of their true post players. This was arguably the best game of Matt’s career, as he posted 17 points and a career best 15 boards. He also had 2 blocked shots, including a huge one late when the game was still in doubt. I thought Matt walked the line between being aggressive and under control very well in this one. DD’s play and minutes hopefully settled the lunatic fringe down a little bit…wondering about his minutes against Iowa is perfectly legitimate but I mentioned in the aftermath of that game that one contest can probably be read as his receiving some necessary instruction and teaching and wasn’t anything to flip out about. Consider that case at least temporarily closed. He was a load at both ends, scoring 10 points on a perfect 4-4 from the floor, blocking 3 shots and grabbing 4 boards. He still gets himself taken out of rebounding position more than you’d like (one of many fine points he’s going to continue receiving instruction on) but he was definitely a key to this win. Gavin had his best game since returning to the court, scoring 8 points and grabbing 5 boards in just 17 minutes.

Perhaps the most impressive thing out of this group today was that both Gav and DD showed an ability to guard a perimeter 4 in Joey King. Now, you should temper that enthusiasm a bit…King is a great shooter and a clever player but he’s not the kind of guy who can *really* cause problems with that kind of matchup…a kid like Uthoff or Troy Williams has an off the dribble element King simply doesn’t possess. Still it’s reasonable to feel encouraged by what we saw from both guys guarding him out on the floor.

2. Defense – Holding anyone to 34/25% shooting is a good day’s work. I thought MSU did a better job in dribble containment than we’ve seen lately, and that was a big part of their success. If the defensive rebounding had been better, these numbers would have been even more impressive. By and large, though, I was happy with what Minnesota had to do in order to score the points they did manage to put on the board. They had some guys hitting shots (Konate, Dorsey with his jumpers) you’d be inclined to give them, so even some of the makes weren’t “bad defense.”

3. Bryn – 20 points and it could easily have been more with some shots not falling for him which usually drop. The more important thing is that MSU was able to get him loose and he was aggressive in getting his shots up at the same time. That’s what was missing in Iowa City.

4. Free Throws – 17-20 as a team. MSU was plus 5 at the line and plus 1 in attempts (though late fouling helped push that margin in MSU’s direction). MSU’s three posts were a combined 11-14…so yeah, they had all 3 misses but that’s a conversion rate you’ll take from your big men anytime.

THE BAD AND THE UGLY

1. Defensive Rebounding – IMO, it’s now officially something MSU has to get better at. Denzel’s return will be part of it but it’s a collective deal as well. It’s one thing giving up offensive rebounds to Louisville or Kansas…it’s another for Minnesota to go get 16 of them against you. That shouldn’t happen and it was by far the biggest reason the Gophers hung around in this game. Normal MSU clearance makes this a margin in the high teens instead of 8 points.

2. Ball Movement – A lot of it was recognition. Little Ricky was taking a page from Dad’s book in switching defensive looks and I didn’t think MSU was very smooth in diagnosing it and getting into its offense. 16 assists on 24 made baskets isn’t bad but this MSU team is at its best when that number is in excess of 70 %, IMO. Some of it today was excusable because MSU had a lot of post action which can take assists away, but not all of it…I still think we’re clearly suffering in this area without Denzel and that’s to be expected.

MSU gets several days now to focus on Illinois and finally seeing a return to Breslin, where they haven’t played since the middle of December. With word coming out today that Denzel expects that to be the last game he misses, it’s even more important that they find a way to close this stretch out with a victory.