by Mark Heller

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Even just one visit was more than enough.
Last season the Minnesota men’s basketball team played Michigan State twice, losing 71-55 at the Breslin Center in early January.
The Gophers responded the second time around at Williams Arena. They blew a 10-point lead in the last eight minutes, tied it on a Terrance Simmons three-pointer, then lost on a layup by a fellow named Mateen Cleaves with one second left.
A drastically new Minnesota team caught a break when the Big Ten schedule-makers only made the Gophers play Michigan State once this season. But that became once-too-many right out of the gate, as the Spartans walked their way through a 79-43 romp at the Breslin Center.
The two-time Big Ten champion Spartans (22-7, 12-3 Big Ten) are jockeying with Ohio State — Minnesota’s final game of the season on Saturday — for a shot at three-peating the conference title.
The two teams are tied heading into the final game of the season.
So it was supposed to be the Gophers’ job to play spoiler. Instead they spoiled the Spartans, shooting a decrepit 30 percent while allowing Cleaves and associates to hit 51 percent of their own shots.
“I’d like to start by saying they’re better than we are,” Gophers coach Dan Monson said. “They’re one of the great teams in America trying to win a national championship.”
Like Purdue and Wisconsin before, this contest was over almost as soon as it began. In national championship contender-like fashion, Michigan State cruised to leads of 15-4, 29-8 and 44-15 by halftime.
The Gophers (12-14, 4-11), like most of the rest of the Big Ten, couldn’t get around or stop the Spartans, thanks to a now-healthy Cleaves and Morris Peterson.
“They definitely have a chance to win it all with Cleaves back,” junior forward Kyle Sanden said. “It looked like he was never injured. He picked us apart.”
But while Cleaves (12 points, nine assists, one turnover) and Peterson (13 points, seven rebounds) enjoyed typical performances, the backups gave reason to hope for a Final Four appearance.
Guys like A.J. Granger, Andre Hutson, Mike Chappell and Charlie Bell paved the way to the Michigan State route.
Chappell led all scorers with 18 points off the bench. Granger and Bell combined for 20 points, 11 rebounds and one turnover and Jason Richardson had a career-high 12 rebounds.
“Those guys are huge for us,” Cleaves said. “We don’t choose who gets all the attention around here, but if you want any chance of winning, then get those guys going early.”
“(Cleaves and Peterson) get the spotlight, but we all know we’re just as much a part of this team as they are,” Bell said. “It doesn’t bother us. Winning is the only things that matters.”
Let there be no doubt that Cleaves and Peterson will dictate just how far the Spartans make it during the rest of March. Let it also be known that those not wearing the numbers 12 or 42 for the green and white will have a helping handful in Michigan State’s run through March Madness.
“At the beginning of the year I picked them to win the whole thing,” Gophers junior guard Terrance Simmons said. “They have two great players, but Jordan and Pippen didn’t win it all until they had guys around them.”

Mark Heller covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected].