No. 10 Michigan State looks to keep momentum intact as it hosts Minnesota
East Lansing —Everything was leading up to a big moment for Michigan State last weekend.
The Spartans were ranked 10th and had won eight straight games heading into their first matchup with rival Michigan. The fact the Wolverines have been struggling added to the anticipation.
But hours before Michigan State was set to take the court at the Crisler Center, COVID issues in Michigan’s program put the game on hold.
“When it’s your rivalry game, everybody is more disappointed,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “It’s a high that you kind of build towards, a crescendo. Then, all of a sudden, there is no game.”
It was a letdown.
“Definitely a bummer, because you hear about it all the time,” said guard Tyson Walker, the Northeastern transfer who has yet to play in the rivalry. “Even being from the East Coast, you hear about it all the time. I just wanted to play in it, I was excited, but we’re playing them again.”
More: Tom Izzo: No issues with Michigan postponement, but 'bigger picture' must improve
Now Michigan State (13-2, 4-0 Big Ten) is striving not to let the unexpected break stifle its momentum. The Spartans play host to Minnesota at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the Breslin Center.
The team has been rolling, the last defeat coming the day after Thanksgiving against now top-rated Baylor in the Bahamas.
“How do you maintain momentum?” Izzo said. “You maintain momentum by worrying most about ourselves. Let’s do what we’ve got to get better at and that will take care of some things. Let's not worry about any other team. Let's just worry about how Michigan State handles things.”
The Spartans began to do that soon after getting the news they wouldn’t be playing Michigan. Saturday turned into an off day. But by Sunday, they were back on the court, working on themselves.
A major focus remains on limiting the turnovers.
“We are trying to correct the things we think are negatives,” Izzo said. “The biggest one is the turnovers, but also a little bit more consistency in how we execute our offense, how we guard defensively, and how we rebound the ball. So we are spending a lot of time (this week) on us because we already know what they do.”
The extra time off is one thing to navigate. But some odd scheduling is also in play. Michigan State faces Minnesota before playing host to Northwestern on Saturday. Both are teams the Spartans have already faced. MSU beat the Golden Gophers on the road in the Big Ten opener in early December and knocked off the Wildcats on the road Jan. 3.
Over six conference games, Michigan State will have faced just four teams.
Izzo doesn’t love the quirk. He’d like it more spread out, playing all the other teams in the first half of the season before getting them a second time. But he understands this season’s schedule has helped build the wave the Spartans are riding.
“Sometimes scheduling helps you get momentum,” Izzo said. “You can win five in a row because of your schedule, or you can play four out of five on the road against top teams like Purdue or Illinois and you could lose five in a row. That’s what I'm trying to keep in perspective for our team as we move forward. The nice thing about winning is there is a hunger, there is momentum, there is a feel good. We haven’t played quite good enough where there is a cocky feel good, but there has always been something that has happened at the end of some of these games where you still get to coach the next day.
“It’s a lot better to coach mistakes after a win than coach mistakes after a loss, unless you have team that can’t handle success. I think our guys, they have enough humility. They know we're not ready to beat the world, but we’re making some progress.”
How much progress will be gauged against a Minnesota team that won its first seven games of the season before falling to Michigan State at home. The Gophers went on to win three in a row from there. But since jumping back into conference play, they’ve lost two in a row — at home to Illinois and at Indiana.
Even with the recent slide, Minnesota (10-3, 1-3) has been a bit of a surprise under first-year coach Ben Johnson. George Washington transfer Jamison Battle, who is sixth in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 18.2 points a game, has been a force. The Gophers are also getting 15.8 points a game from veteran guard Payton Willis. Senior big man Eric Curry is steady in the post.
“They have two of the better shooters in the league in Battle and Payton Willis,” Izzo said of the 75-67 victory in December. “We did a decent job of containing both of them, and we are going to need that kind of effort again.”
The Spartans also believe they’re a better team than they were when they last faced the Gophers. The recent turnover issues might tell another story, but Michigan State continues to be one of the top defensive teams in the country, is making nearly 40% of its 3-point shots and is outrebounding opponents by nearly nine a game.
“They definitely run their stuff better,” Walker said of Minnesota. “But I feel like we guard better, our communication has gotten better on the floor and our offense definitely is better than before.
“So I don't think (the postponed game) stops momentum. Every time we're playing, we feel like the underdog. It helps us when we play and we’re going to keep playing like that.”
Minnesota at No. 10 Michigan State
►Tip-off: 7 p.m., Wednesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
►TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760
►Records: Minnesota 10-3, 1-3 Big Ten; Michigan State 13-2, 4-0
Outlook: Michigan State has won six of the last seven in the series and hasn’t lost at home to the Golden Gophers since 2015.