3-game streak on the line at No. 10 MSU

The Spartans have lost two of their last three but are undefeated at home.

by Charlie Armitz

Two weeks ago, it was hard to mention Minnesota and Michigan StateâÄôs menâÄôs basketball teams in the same breath.

The Gophers were 0-4 on Jan. 10 and trailed the then-undefeated Spartans by four games in the conference standings.

Now, as the Gophers (3-4) and No. 10 Spartans (5-2) prepare for a crucial game Wednesday in East Lansing, Mich., the conference is in the midst of a mid-season shakeup that has seen Minnesota win its last three games and Michigan State lose two of its last three.

The two teams may be trending in opposite directions, but Michigan State should provide a tough test for the Gophers on the road.

The Gophers are coming off a 75-52 home win Sunday against Northwestern that head coach Tubby Smith called the teamâÄôs best all-around effort of the season.

 âÄúI was very pleased with our defensive effort,âÄù Smith said. âÄúI thought our energy level was very high. We were working hard at both ends of the court. We took good shots, we took care of the ball, we attacked the basket.âÄù

The numbers back up SmithâÄôs words âÄî Minnesota shot 58 percent from the field and held Northwestern to 33 percent. The teamâÄôs starting lineup combined to score 62 points on 63 percent shooting.

That lineup âÄî Ralph Sampson III, Rodney Williams, Austin Hollins, Joe Coleman and Julian Welch âÄî has scored78 percent of the GophersâÄô points during their three-game winning streak while shooting 59 percent from the field.

That kind of production is quite a contrast to Michigan State, which used 16 players in its last game, an 83-58 rout of Purdue.

The Spartans have struggled lately, losing at Michigan and Northwestern while receiving minimal contributions from their starting five.

Their first five scored just 29 points at the loss to Michigan. Dreymond Green, a forward that Smith called âÄúa candidate for player of the year,âÄù had seven points on 3-for-8 shooting.

Aside from those back-to-back losses, Michigan State has dominated teams inside all season long with its depth and physical presence.

Smith said a key for handling the SpartansâÄô front line is the play of Sampson, which has showed small improvements in the last two weeks.

âÄúHe really set the tone [against Northwestern],âÄù Smith said of Sampson. âÄúWe need him to come out with that energy [against Michigan State].âÄù

Sampson said he is still nursing a sore left ankle, which he injured in November.

âÄúIâÄôm definitely still not as explosive as I was at the beginning,âÄù Sampson said. âÄúThese last two weeks, I still wake up, and itâÄôs stiff. ItâÄôs a struggle to get through.âÄù

Sampson won the inside battle in the GophersâÄô last game against Michigan State, a 53-48 home loss in February 2011. He scored 10 points to go with seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks and helped Minnesota hold Green to seven points.

But neither Sampson nor his team has had recent success in East Lansing. The Gophers havenâÄôt won there since 1997, losing 11 straight games by at least six points.

âÄúTheyâÄôve had great players, and theyâÄôve got a great coach in Tom Izzo, and theyâÄôve got a tough place to play,âÄù Smith said. âÄúThatâÄôs a combination for having a winning program.âÄù

The Spartans are 12-0 overall at home this season and have yet to lose a home game by fewer than 14 points.

But the Gophers have won their last two road games, including a 77-74 upset of then-No. 7 Indiana, and remained competitive in their two road losses to Illinois and Michigan.

âÄúIt gives us the courage that we can go on the road and play well and get a win,âÄù Smith said of the teamâÄôs success away from home.