At his weekly media luncheon, Clem Haskins was asked if his Gophers and their Wednesday opponent, Michigan State, were equal in their talent and abilities.
“If we had Mateen Cleaves, we’d be even,” Haskins said, referring to the Spartans’ mercurial point guard. Instead, the Gophers may be keeping their collective fingers crossed as they head to East Lansing, Mich., to meet Cleaves and the 12-4 Spartans, the defending Big Ten champions.
Haskins called Michigan State “one of the most powerful and athletic teams in the country,” and was full of praise for Cleaves, who was a consensus All-American as well as the Big Ten Player of the Year last season.
“The difference between us and Michigan State is Mateen,” Haskins said. “He is truly an outstanding player. I’ve been very impressed with him since the Goodwill (Games) trials.”
But the 6-foot-2 Cleaves is struggling to regain last year’s form, averaging only 11.4 points per game while shooting only 42.6 percent from the field. However, he is still one of the top playmakers in the nation, averaging a league-high 6.6 assists per game.
The matchup to keep an eye on will be between Cleaves and Gophers guard Kevin Clark. Clark, who has struggled in his last few games to find a groove offensively, admits it won’t exactly be a cakewalk defending against one of the nation’s premier backcourt players.
“It’s going to be tough going up against him,” Clark said. “He kind of broke our backs when he was here last year. I hope coach gives me the pleasure of defending him.”
The pleasure, Spartans’ coach Tom Izzo insists, will be all Cleaves’.
“(Mateen) wants to beat every challenge he faces,” Izzo said. “Certainly, both he and Kevin Clark can score a lot of points. It’s going to be a great matchup.”
But the game wouldn’t be played if only Cleaves and Clark suited up. Michigan State boasts 6-foot-8 forwards Antonio Smith and Andre Hutson, along with 6-foot-6 swingman Morris Peterson (15 points per game) in its arsenal of weapons.
“Morris Peterson has been one of our steadiest players so far,” Izzo said. “I also think that he’s been our most well-rounded player.”
The emergence of Peterson, who was the team’s top bench player last season, comes at a time when Izzo has had to do a bit of reshuffling in the lineup. Cleaves’ backcourt mate, Charlie Bell, has been bothered by injuries and ineffectiveness, which made Izzo slide forward Jason Klein over to the off-guard position. Izzo says he is still unsure whether Bell or Peterson will start against Minnesota.
The Spartans are one of the most formidable opponents on the Gophers’ schedule for a reason, assistant coach Bill Brown said.
“Michigan State does an excellent job of setting up their offense,” he said. “If you take away their transition, they are still an outstanding basketball team.”
In order to counter the Spartans’ offensive and defensive prowess, the Gophers will look to build on their own presence in the post and keep power players like Smith and Hutson away from the boards. Haskins is banking on key contributions from forward Miles Tarver and center Joel Przybilla on both ends of the court, and is confident the team will continue to find its rhythm.
“I really feel we’re getting back in the groove,” he said. “I think we’ll play even better at Michigan State.”