January 10, 2014

Spartans will face guard-driven Gophers

EAST LANSING - While injuries and illness have become just as prominent as Michigan State's record and rankings so far this season, the No. 5/4 Spartans have still found a way to remain successful in the win column.

That trend will have to continue when MSU hosts Minnesota at 2:15 p.m. on Saturday at Breslin Center.

With senior forward Adreian Payne battling a sore foot and junior guard Travis Trice's participation still in question as he recovers from the flu, the Spartans enter Saturday's contest fresh off a victory over No. 3 Ohio State on Tuesday.

An overtime win the Spartans (14-1, 3-0 Big Ten) gained despite senior guard Keith Appling battling cramps, junior guard Gary Harris battling fatigue and minus the absence of sophomore guard Denzel Valentine who fouled out late in the second half.

And while MSU may not be facing a team that equals the caliber of Ohio State, one that many feel could make a run at the Final Four, along with conference foe Wisconsin, the Spartans will need to put up a strong group effort to knock off first-year Gophers' coach Richard Pitino and a very athletic and tough-to-play-against Minnesota team.

This will be the MSU's only meeting with the Gophers this season unless the two teams meet in the Big Ten Tournament or the postseason. In the Spartans last meeting with Minnesota, MSU prevailed 61-50 last February.

The Spartans have won 23 of their last 28 meetings, capturing the last 14 meetings at Breslin Center. MSU coach Tom Izzo is 26-9 all-time against Minnesota.

The Gophers (13-3, 2-1), who trail the overall series 58-64 and are 40-19 in games in East Lansing, feature three guards who score in double figures and are led by 6-foot-2 junior Andre Hollins' 15.8 points, 4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game.

Hollins' efforts are supported by his brother Austin, a 6-4 senior, and teammate Deandre Mathieu, who have helped Minnesota win eight of their last nine outings.

Austin Hollins adds 12.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game, while Mathieu, a 5-9 junior contributes 11.6 points, 2.8 rebounds and a team-leading 4.4 assist a game.

Senior center Eliott Eliason is only averaging 6.5 points per game but leads the Gophers in rebounding at 8.5 a contest.

Minnesota's three-pronged guard attack means Valentine will need to play smarter on defense than he did against Ohio State because the Spartans will need added backcourt help in the absence of Trice.

And while Izzo may be more inclined to use versatile junior swingman Branden Dawson on Austin Hollins on the defensive side of the ball, ball security from the Spartan backcourt will be key in the Spartans quest to continue their current seven-game win streak.

Offensively, the Spartans counter attack with one of the best guard tandems in country with Appling and Harris.

Harris, a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate and the second-leading scorer in the Big Ten, leads the Spartans in scoring at 17.8 points a game, while Appling, MSU's top assist threat at 4.7 a contest, adds 15.9 points a contest.

Payne, the Spartans' second-leading scorer at 16.2 points a game, also hauls in 7.7 boards a game, while Dawson, who is contributing 10.7 points a game, is the Spartans leading rebounder at 8.6 boards.

"AP (Payne) is very questionable,'' Izzo said after Thursday's practice. "But I would have said it was 99 percent he wasn't going to play (against Ohio State). It's nothing bad. He's structurally fine. He's sore. It swelled up a little bit (after the OSU game), which is normal.

"We're not concerned about anything long term or serious but these short term ones are starting to get at me a little bit."

If the Spartans, who only loss this season came at the hands of North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, expect to stay perfect in conference play, they will need to play with a much stronger effort down the stretch than they exhibited against the Buckeyes, where they squandered a 17-point advantage before pulling off the win in overtime.

"It just goes to prove that we're not where we want to be at,'' Izzo said.

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