GAME PREVIEW - It's been so long and so much has transpired since their last matchup, Michigan State and Minnesota must feel like they are meeting for the first time in a new season.
The characteristics that defined both teams back on Dec. 31st, when the Gophers took over the game in the last three minutes to come away with what seemingly looked like a dominating 76-63 win, are no longer applicable for either team.
The Gophers were ranked No. 9 then, while the Spartans sat at No. 18.
Since that Big Ten season-opening showdown, MSU has captured victories in seven of its last eight games, while Minnesota has had to battle back into conference relevance after suffering through a four-game slump that was bookended by two wins before and after their fall from grace.
"They went through their slump that I (said) a lot of teams in the league would go through,'' MSU coach Tom Izzo said. "At one point they lost four out of five and then they have won a couple in a row now. So I think they are back on track.''
That means when the No. 12/8 Spartans (18-4, 7-2 Big Ten) host their 7 p.m. rematch against the 18th-ranked Gophers (17-5, 5-4) Wednesday at Breslin Center, in a game that will mark the beginning of the second half of the Big Ten slate, expect as much or even more intensity than what surrounded their first meeting.
Because the Spartans are tied for second in the conference race with Michigan and Ohio State, just a half game behind first-place Indiana, and the Gophers are trying to stay alive in the race as they try to avoid falling four games off the pace for the top spot.
"At the beginning of the year, we were young and still trying to get our chemistry together,'' said sophomore wing Branden Dawson. "We didn't make free throws in the clutch and when we looked back at the film, we had some letdowns, some miscommunications on defense and missed free throws. Now, I feel like we're a better team because we're a team that's playing great together.''
With so much at stake, it only seems fitting that in the two team's 111th meeting that the series be tied at 55 wins apiece.
While the Spartans hold a distinct 39-19 advantage at home, which includes a dominating 19-3 mark at Breslin, the Gophers have had to fight to remain relevant in the series overall, losing eight of their last 10 meetings against MSU.
Minnesota coach Tubby Smith is just 4-15 all-time against the Spartans, with his win earlier this season at Minneapolis being the one that broke a four-game MSU win streak.
In that win, Minnesota was able to expose MSU's weakness against three-guard sets.
The Gophers' backcourt trio of Andre and Austin Hollins, and Joe Coleman enter Wednesday's contest with a combined average of 35.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 8.3 rebounds a game.
Led by Andre Hollins' 14.2 points a game, Minnesota's guards are the catalysts for their team's successes and failures. In the first meeting, both Andre Hollins and Coleman scored above their season averages in leading Minnesota to victory.
Both Austin (and Andre), those guards are playing really well and Williams is maybe as good an athlete as there is in this league,'' Izzo said. "Those guards are all strong and tough. They look like linebackers. ''
And they all bring a specialty to Minnesota's starting lineup - where everyone averages at least nine points - that makes them dynamic and diverse enough that even if you can keep one down it doesn't assure you success in beating Minnesota.
While all three guards shoot over 40 percent from the field, Andre Hollins is the best passer, Austin Hollins is the best backcourt defender and Coleman is the best perimeter shooter.
"They've got balanced scoring. They've got five guys scoring almost ten points a game,'' Izzo said. "It's a team that I think is explosive on the offensive glass, the best offensive rebounding team in the league or one of the best, and a very good rebounding team in general. (They're) a very physical team with big guards''
The Spartans, who must get off to a better start than they did against Illinois' backcourt trio in their last game, an 80-75 victory, will have some depth question marks to answer against the Gophers.
MSU, which is led by junior guard and captain Keith Appling's 14 points, 4.2 assists and 3.6 rebounds a game, are expected to be without the services of sophomore guard Travis Trice, who is recovering from a head injury suffered against the Illini.
Additionally, freshman guard Gary Harris had a crippling bout with back spasms in MSU's last game and while he is expected to play, there is no guarantee that there may not be another flare up of the injury on Wednesday.
That means MSU will need some quality minutes out of freshman guard Denzel Valentine and redshirt sophomore Russell Byrd.
And both are well aware of what they need to provide if and when they are called upon Wednesday night.
"I watched more film since Travis and Gary were questionable so that I could be ready to go in at the point or the wing position,'' Valentine said. "I don't need to go out there and score 20 points. I just need to do the little things; get some rebounds, gets some assists, make an open shot when I have it and just let the game come to me. So wherever coach needs me, I'm going to play.''
Byrd, who could be called on to provide another scoring option, sees his role as similar to Valentine's when it comes to providing more than just points off the bench.
"Coach has just asked me to be solid, shoot when I'm open and not try to do anything that I'm not necessarily comfortable with doing right now,'' Byrd said. "So I'm just going to go out there, play good defense and crash the boards. I don't think that's a lot to ask. It's just a matter of me bearing down and making that happen.''
One area where the Spartans have vastly improved since the team's last meeting is in the post.
While the Gophers have the strong inside presence of forwards Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe - Williams is the team's second leading scorer at 12 points a game, while Mbakwe, who has averaged a double-double in his last 11 games, is Minnesota's top rebounder at 8.5 a game - senior center Derrick Nix and junior forward Adreian Payne have taken their games to another level since that first meeting at the end of December.
Both are averaging nearly 10 points and seven rebounds a contest, a far cry from the anemic outputs they produced back in December at Williams Arena.
While Nix did have 10 points, it was on 5-of-15 shooting, with him only pulling down four rebounds. Payne was the Spartans' leading rebounder in that first meeting with seven but he only scored four points.
The Gophers' post tandem of Williams and Mbakwe finished with a combined 26 points and 18 rebounds, while shooting 50 percent from the floor back in December.
The Spartans wildcard in possibly earning a victory on Wednesday may come in the form of the 6-foot-6 sophomore, Dawson.
Izzo has been asking more from Dawson each week and he responding as he enters Wednesday's game averaging 10.6 points and 6.8 rebounds a game while many times taking on the responsibility of guarding the opponent's best wing player.
In that first meeting, Dawson finished with just eight points and two rebounds.
His upgraded defense and scoring could be the key in getting over the hump against a very versatile Gophers' starting five.
"I'm adjusting to it,'' said Dawson of Izzo's request. "At the beginning of the season, I wasn't really playing that good so coach had been texting me telling me I need to take it up a notch and I'm ready for the challenge because I know, as far as myself, I capable of picking it up a notch and I feel good about it.''
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