MSU's Goins, Ward, Tillman, Winston talk about facing Minnesota in the NCAA Tournament. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Des Moines, Iowa — It’s not every year two teams from the same conference play in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
However, that’s exactly what Michigan State and Minnesota are faced with as they prepare to square off today in the second round of the East Region at Wells Fargo Arena. No. 2 Michigan State got by Bradley in the first round to get here, while No. 10 Minnesota pulled off the mild upset of No. 7 Louisville.
So, is it a good or bad thing to play another Big Ten team so quickly in the NCAA Tournament? Well, depends on who you ask.
“Everybody asked me, is it easier to prepare for a team, we were two completely different teams than we were a month and a half ago,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We have only played once. It was a long time ago and the prep feels brand new.”
Added Minnesota coach Richard Pitino, “You’re not going to hear me complain. I don’t care who we play. You’re never going to hear me complain about that.
“We’re going to play who is in front of us. Michigan State is a terrific team. In order to go to a Sweet 16 you’re never going to play easy games. We take what we get.”
What is clear is that both sides — players and coaches — agree on one thing heading into tonight’s 7:45 tip-off: Don’t pay too much attention to what happened the last time the teams played. That was back on Feb. 9 in East Lansing and the Spartans, coming off a three-game losing streak, rolled over the Golden Gophers for a 79-55 win. Nick Ward scored 22 while Matt McQuaid had 18 points and Cassius Winston scored 11 with nine assists for the Spartans.
On the other side, Minnesota struggled. Gabe Kalscheur scored 17, but Jordan Murphy was limited to five points and Amir Coffey scored four as the Gophers were in the middle of a four-game skid.
“That was not a very good team at the time,” Pitino said of his Golden Gophers. “We were struggling, allowing them to get out on the break. Cassius was very good. McQuaid was very good. Nick Ward really hurt us down low.
“Playing at Michigan State is very, very hard. But we’ve got some confidence going now, beat Purdue twice in 10 days. They’re a terrific team, went in and beat a surging Penn State team and beat a Louisville team yesterday. So probably a confidence factor, feeling those wins, tasting them, offensively we played well and defensively did a lot of good things.”
Michigan State (29-6) understands it can’t simply show up and beat Minnesota, especially not the way it did back in February. If for nothing else, the Spartans have a different look. Kenny Goins played only seven minutes after hurting his elbow while Kyle Ahrens was still active. And Ward was dominant but broke his hand two games later and is just now getting back into the flow of things, hoping he’s back to himself against a Big Ten team that is a much better matchup for him than a smaller Bradley team.
“I’m very excited, just coming out and playing another Big Ten team, especially one we know,” Ward said. “It’s huge. It’s gonna be challenging but we’re gonna be ready for it.”
Minnesota (22-13) has changed quite a bit, too, as Pitino pointed out.
The Gophers started to right the ship late in the season, winning two of three, including a victory over Purdue that helped Michigan State grab a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship. The Gophers followed that up with a win over the Boilermakers in the conference tournament
Much of it was because of the play of Murphy and Coffey.
Murphy, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors, has had two double-doubles in the last six games, but it’s been Coffey who has taken off down the stretch. The junior guard has scored in double-figures in each of the last seven games, including going for 31 against Northwestern and 32 in the first win over Purdue.
He believes the last time the Gophers and Spartans met is not a good indicator of how things will go this time.
“The first time at their place, our offense just wasn’t clicking,” said Coffey, who was 2-for-6 in 29 minutes. “They had some good defense possessions on us and on the defensive side we weren’t rebounding very well. They had a lot of second-chance points and we were pretty bad in transition. So we’re going to sharpen up on those three categories and be ready for tomorrow.”
Expect Michigan State to continue to run McQuaid at Coffey while Ward and Xavier Tillman look forward to battling with Murphy and Daniel Oturu.
“Me and Nick will guard Jordan Murphy and Oturu,” Tillman said. “We’ll do our best to be as physical as possible. … If this was a brand-new team, it would be harder to pick up tendencies. But we’ve played them before and seen a lot of games against people we’ve played, so we know them well.”
While it might look like a game between two conference foes in the middle of February, the stakes are much higher this time. The winner gets a trip to the Sweet 16, something Michigan State hasn’t done since 2015 and Minnesota hasn’t since 1997 during a Final Four that has been vacated because of NCAA sanctions.
“I think we will be ready to go,” Izzo said. “We’re going to have to be because they’re playing their best basketball of the season.”
NO. 2 MICHIGAN STATE VS. NO. 10 MINNESOTA
Tip-off: 7:45 p.m. Saturday, Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa
Records: Michigan State 29-6, Minnesota 22-13
Next up: Winner faces No. 6 Maryland or No. 3 LSU in the Sweet 16