Gophers get another shot at No. 13 Michigan State

MN Daily, File Photo Austin Hinckle

Ashley Goetz

MN Daily, File Photo Austin Hinckle

Remember back to New Year’s Eve? That was the day Michigan State came to Williams Arena and gave the Gophers a serious reality check. The Spartans exposed just about every flaw Minnesota had, despite their 12-0 nonconference start that included a win over top-10 Louisville, in the 70-58 win. Suddenly, the questions flowed. Are the Gophers that good? Did any of their nonconference wins mean much, besides Louisville? Was the win over Louisville, which had played two days earlier, really that meaningful? Could the Gophers compete in the Big Ten? The Gophers silenced those questions with three quality conference wins. And when doubt rose again in late January, with back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Purdue, they responded with a dominating win over top-20 Illinois. The Gophers aren’t favorites on the road against No. 13 Michigan State tonight, but it’s clear theyâÄôre a much different team than they were on New Year’s Eve. âÄúIt helped that we were able to recover and get some wins right after that,âÄù head coach Tubby Smith said. âÄúIt didn’t stay with us too long. We were able to correct some issues.âÄù On the forefront is the development of No. 19 Minnesota’s two freshmen centers, Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson, who will go against Michigan State senior Goran Suton tonight. Sampson has become fiercer underneath the basket, and has played increased minutes the past two games. In addition to his 10 points against Illinois, he helped shut down and grab rebounds over 7-foot-1 Illini center Mike Tisdale. Iverson has seen less court time with Sampson’s emergence, but played a sizable role against Illinois. With center Jonathan Williams’ calf injury limiting his time, Smith said he is happy with how both freshmen have used their increased floor time. âÄúA little more experience has helped them,âÄù Smith said. âÄúThey’re playing with a little more poise and patience, and we’re playing a lot sounder defensively.âÄù On the backs of Sampson and Iverson, the Gophers have turned into one of the better rebounding teams in the Big Ten, after the Spartans outrebounded them 49-27 on New YearâÄôs Eve. That likely wonâÄôt happen tonight âÄî not only because of Sampson and Iverson, but because the Spartans will be without star forward Raymar Morgan. The 6-foot-8 junior, and preseason All-Big Ten pick, reportedly has a mild case of walking pneumonia and hasnâÄôt played double-digit minutes in his past two games. Smith said Tuesday morning, before MorganâÄôs final status was announced, that the Gophers prepared as if Morgan would play, but acknowledged that MorganâÄôs absence would be âÄúa tough lossâÄù for the Spartans. A big loss indeed, especially for a Michigan State team that is coming off a home loss to Penn State. That upset dropped them out of the top-10 after rising as high as No. 7. It was also Michigan StateâÄôs second loss of the year at the Breslin Center, where the Gophers havenâÄôt won since 1990. âÄúThey’ve been pretty much invincible at home over the years,âÄù Smith said. âÄúObviously, knowing that they did lose games at home, you have to feel like, ‘Well, maybe we have a chance.âÄôâÄù