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Film dive: 3 factors that will decide Michigan State vs. Minnesota

January 12, 2022
<p>Senior guard Cassius Winston smiles during the game against Minnesota on Jan. 9, 2020 at the Breslin Center. The Spartans defeated the Golden Gophers, 74-58.</p>

Senior guard Cassius Winston smiles during the game against Minnesota on Jan. 9, 2020 at the Breslin Center. The Spartans defeated the Golden Gophers, 74-58.

Photo by Connor Desilets | The State News

Michigan State is back in action Wednesday night against a familiar foe in Minnesota as the Spartans look to extend their winning streak to nine games. It will be MSU’s first game in a week after their game on Saturday against Michigan was canceled due to COVID-19 issues within the Wolverines’ program. 

The first matchup between the Gophers and the Spartans was the third game in Michigan State’s eight-game unbeaten streak that dates back to Thanksgiving weekend. Michigan State led the game for almost the entire 40 minutes and did not let Minnesota within single digits until the waning seconds of the game when MSU started gifting the ball away as they are prone to do.

The last three victories have not been pretty for MSU, who trailed in all three before regaining the lead and winning. Turnovers continue to be a costly issue for Michigan State that puts them in close matchups with lower-level talent. Despite the struggles, Michigan State has still been scoring at a blistering pace thanks to strong shooting from its backcourt to keep the winning streak alive. 

Minnesota has not had the same kind of success since its last tango with Michigan State, going 3-2 and 1-2 in conference play. The Gophers have lost consecutive games by double digits to Illinois at home and Indiana on the road. 

Despite the recent slip-ups, Michigan State Men's Basketball Head Coach Tom Izzo is wary of the challenges Minnesota will present for his team. He said that first-year Head Coach Ben Johnson should be the front runner for coach of the year for turning around the Gophers so quickly and bringing in immediate upgrades through the transfer portal.

After rewatching Michigan State’s first battle with Minnesota on Dec. 8, here are the three determining factors that I believe will determine the outcome of the rematch.

Can Michigan State slow down Minnesota’s prolific scoring duo?

Coming into Wednesday night, Minnesota possesses two of the top 12 scorers in the Big Ten in senior point guard Payton Willis (15.8 PPG, 12th in the Big Ten) and sophomore forward Jamison Battle (18.2 PPG, 6th in the Big Ten). 

The two transferred to Minnesota in the offseason in search of an expanded offensive role and the decision has paid off for them personally and for the University as well. The two play an intricate two-man game in the half court to generate most of the Gophers’ offense.

Willis is the initiator for almost everything that Minnesota does offensively as the point guard. Minnesota runs simple sets that keeps the ball in Willis’ hands to make decisions or create something himself. The strongest part of his individual game is his ability to create a shot against any defender. He uses his quickness to get the defenders unbalanced to create driving opportunities or to set up a step-back jumper.

Michigan State will employ a number of guards to try to slow down Willis, but starting junior point guard Tyson Walker will handle the assignment most of the night. Walker has began to show his defensive chops that earned him CAA defensive player of the year at Northeastern, averaging just under 1.5 steals per game. Walker was able to hold Willis to only nine points in the first matchup, his second-lowest total of the season. 

When Willis is operating, Battle is fighting his own war in the paint. Battle either gets the play going by setting a down screen for a cutter or setting a high-ball screen for Willis and flaring to the wing for a shot. The pick and roll with Willis and Battle has been deadly this year, but Battle has worked best solo. 

His bread-and-butter is with his back to the basket in the high post. Battle has the length and athleticism to elevate and get a jump shot up over nearly every defender in the Big Ten and the speed to punish defenses with drop steps and spins that guard him with a center in the high post. Junior forwards Malik Hall and Joey Hauser will have to do a better job of slowing him down after Battle scored 17 in the first matchup.

Can Minnesota keep up on the boards?

In the first matchup in December, Michigan State attacked the glass and out-rebounded Minnesota 44-29. Despite Michigan State’s back-breaking 13 turnovers, the Spartans were able to create second-chance looks consistently with its 10 offensive rebounds.

Minnesota enters Wednesday’s game dead last in the Big Ten in rebounds per game (32.9) while Michigan State ranks second (40.9). Outside of redshirt senior Eric Curry and Battle who combined to pull in 13 of Minnesota’s 29 rebounds, no player for the Gophers had more than three rebounds in the last matchup. 

The Spartans will be aggressive once again in attacking the offensive boards and Minnesota will have to do everything they can to limit second chances to score. If Minnesota can keep MSU off the boards and turn them over at the same rate of the first game, the Gophers will be in a good position to pull off the road upset. 

MSU turnover woes continue to be a glaring Achilles heel

Michigan State is coming off a double-digit victory over Nebraska but Izzo and the players were disgusted with the team’s performance once again despite the relatively easy victory. 


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Because the Spartans turned the ball over 19 times. And the saddest part of that statistic is that it is not the season-high for MSU, who has cracked 20 turnovers already against Loyola Chicago

The continued issue of ball security has left Michigan State in a number of close battles that they would be winning handily if it weren’t for the boneheaded mistakes that seem destined to happen each time MSU takes the court. The issues have left MSU turning the ball over on 20.6% of its offensive possessions, leaving them ranked 275th in the country in turnover percentage according to KenPom. 

The Spartans were able to have one of its best offensive nights so far this season when they traveled to Minnesota because the team had one of its lowest turnover totals of the season (13). If Michigan State can have a similar or lower number tonight and continue its strong shooting, it should be the ninth straight victory for MSU. 


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