MSU basketball looks to erase memories of 'historic beatdown' in Minnesota
East Lansing — If anyone on Michigan State’s roster forgot what happened the last time the Spartans headed to Williams Arena to take on Minnesota, they were given an emphatic reminder the second they walked into the practice gym.
On Sunday, a day after No. 19 Michigan State defeated Toledo and the team reported for a meeting and a short walk through, a message was sent. On a giant screen that overlooks the court was a screenshot of a story from last year's game with the headline “Historic Beatdown.”
“Historic beatdown,” junior Malik Hall said several times. “They said that about 10 times and we were only here like 30 minutes. By the time we left we knew we had a historic beatdown.”
In the moment it was funny. Hall could laugh, as could senior Marcus Bingham Jr. as they recalled the moment.
But the loss at Minnesota last year, while not truly historic, was, in fact, a beatdown. The Golden Gophers hammered the Spartans, 81-56. Michigan State was 18-for-70 shooting for 25.7%, including just 6-for-25 from 3-point range. It didn’t have a single player score in double figures until the final two minutes as Aaron Henry managed to reach 11 points. Henry, Joey Hauser and Rocket Watts combined to shoot 5-for-27 while Joshua Langford was 2-for-10 and Minnesota also outrebounded Michigan State, 52-36.
It marked Michigan State’s third straight Big Ten loss after going 6-0 in non-conference play and was its first loss at Williams Arena since 2012.
It was a doozy as far as losses go, and you can bet it’s on the Spartans’ mind as they prepare for a 9 p.m. tip-off on Wednesday against the unbeaten Golden Gophers (7-0).
“After the embarrassment of last year, one of the worst defeats in my era,” coach Tom Izzo said, “I guess we're looking forward to it.”
Michigan State (7-2) is looking forward to its Big Ten opener because this team is on quite a different trajectory than last year’s at this point. And while not as significant as Minnesota’s changes, the Spartans’ roster looks very different.
Henry, Watts, Foster Loyer and Thomas Kithier are all gone. Each played a significant roles a year ago. In their places are transfer Tyson Walker and freshmen Max Christie and Jaden Akins. Other veterans are having a far bigger impact, like seniors Bingham and Gabe Brown as well as Hall and sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard.
Through nine games, Michigan State has played the toughest schedule among power conference teams and feels far more confident than it did a year ago.
“If you look at most of our perimeter, it's all new and young and inexperienced if they're not new,” Izzo said. “So I think that does take a little bit of time.”
As good as Michigan State has been early, primarily on the defensive end, there have been ups and downs. Turnovers have continued to be a problem, while different players have shot well at different times.
The resulted has been some solid stretches, including good halves in losses to Kansas and Baylor. But the Spartans are still looking to put it all together.
“It’s just getting that consistency now,” Izzo said. “We get the consistency throughout a full game, I think we're going to be much, much, much better team.”
Michigan State will get a chance to find that form against a Minnesota team thatlooks quite different from a season ago. First-year coach Ben Johnson has assembled a roster of mid-major transfers, led by Payton Willis. He was at Minnesota for two years before playing last season at the College of Charleston. Willis s joined by George Washington transfer Jamison Battle, who leads the Gophers at 17.9 points a game and is grabbing 6.1 rebounds a game.
“Those two guys, Battle and Willis have just shot the lights out of the ball this year,” Izzo said. “We’re going to be challenged.”
Guard Eylijah Stephens, who scored 1,000 points at Lafayette and is shooting 45% from 3-point range, as well as senior guard Luke Loewe, a transfer from William and Mary, will get minutes. Sean Sutherlin, a transfer from New Hampshire, is averaging 9.1 points and 4.3 rebounds. Forward Charlie Daniels, a Stephen F. Austin transfer, is also seeing time off the bench.
The only familiar face is senior forward Eric Curry. He’s started all seven games for the Gophers and is averaging 7.6 points and 6.3 rebounds.
“I think, honestly, we're ready for anything,” Hall said. “The coaching staff does a great job just making sure we're ready for everything that we could possibly see. With a schedule like ours, you play so many different people, there's so many different types of defenses and offenses that you’ve just got to adapt.”
The Spartans are confident they’ll be able to adapt this time around, at least better than they did last season. It will be different, not only with the players on the court, but the fact Williams Arena will be full. That makes it one of the tougher places to play in the Big Ten.
With last year’s debacle on their minds, the Spartans say they’re ready to open conference play on a different note.
“We just don’t want anything like that to happen again,” Bingham said. “We have expectations for the season and we have expectations for the Big Ten season. We want to win a championship, so we can't go out like that.”
No. 19 Michigan State at Minnesota
►Tip-off: 9 p.m. Wednesday, Williams Arena, Minneapolis
►TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760
►Records: Michigan State 7-2; Minnesota 7-0
►Outlook: The Golden Gophers are one of 12 unbeaten teams in college basketball, but their strength of schedule ranks 243rd out of 358 teams. … Gophers senior guard Payton Willis was named Big Ten co-Player of the Week after averaging 19.5 points in back-to-back road wins over Pittsburgh and Mississippi State.