Michigan State trip starts torrid stretch of Big Ten games for Gophers

Anthony Maggio

It’s been on the schedule, staring down Minnesota’s men’s basketball team all season.

When the schedule came out in September, the final four-game run looked daunting, like the steep, first drop of a roller coaster. Now Minnesota’s sitting on the track, and the ride is suddenly much more imposing.

The Gophers play at Michigan State tonight, Wisconsin at home on Sunday, at Indiana next Tuesday and at Illinois the following weekend.

Just for perspective, the Spartans, Hoosiers and Illini were the media preseason picks for first, second and third place respectively in the Big Ten.

And Wisconsin finished tied for first in the conference last season.

“If you look at all four games, it’s very overwhelming,” coach Dan Monson said. “But we don’t have to look at all four games; we just have to look at one at a time.”

Game one comes tonight at 6 p.m. in East Lansing, Mich.

Michigan State (14-11, 6-6 Big Ten) has dropped two games at home this season, equaling its number of home losses last season. Those four games are the only losses at the Breslin Center for the Spartans since 1998.

The Gophers (16-7, 8-4) haven’t won in East Lansing since 1997 and haven’t turned any heads with their road play this season (2-5), beating only Penn State (6-17) and Northwestern (10-14) away from Williams Arena.

“Michigan State is difficult to beat no matter what,” senior guard Kevin Burleson said. “At home they have a great fan support, similar to here. The environment is intense.”

Still, the table is set for Minnesota to make a run at the Big Ten season title. Michigan State (.500 in the conference) and Indiana (a game below .500) haven’t lived up to

expectations. The Gophers, on the other hand, are winners of their last four and sit in fourth place while only a game behind first-place Michigan.

The bad news? The Spartans, the Hoosiers and the Illini are a combined 33-3 on their home floors.

“This is going to tell us if we’re competitive or not,” guard Maurice Hargrow said. “It’s exciting and it’s a challenge. All we can do is prepare ourselves.”

For tonight’s contest, the Gophers must be most prepared on the glass.

Monson said his team took a step back in Saturday’s game with Penn State in the rebounding department, which is an invitation for disaster against the physical Spartans.

Minnesota currently leads the conference in rebounds per game at 38.6, but Michigan State is allowing the fewest boards per game at 28.8.

“Rebounding-wise you can put that team up against anybody in the country,” Monson said. “They’re not quite as good as I think they’ve been in the last three or four years rebounding, but certainly they’re as good as anybody in the country at it.”

A strong performance on the glass still won’t assure anything for the Gophers. Their top scoring offense in the Big Ten (76.9 ppg) must also overcome the Spartans’ third-ranked scoring defense (62.4 ppg).

Minnesota has shot the ball well during its current four-game win streak, averaging 79.25 points per game on 46.8-percent shooting.

“I’m really feeling pretty good about where we’re at right now because we are constantly improving,” Burleson said. “We really understand our roles and what we need to do to score.”

If the Gophers win Wednesday, it will be their longest conference winning streak since the 1996-97 season, the same team which last defeated the Spartans at home.

More importantly, a victory could give Minnesota a winning road mentality in its quest for a Big Ten title.

“The stage is set for us,” Hargrow said. “There’s nothing more we can ask for. It’s all up to us now.”

Rickert honored

Sophomore Rick Rickert was named to the 2003 Verizon Academic All-District V Men’s Basketball First Team. He earned the honor with a 3.31 grade point average as an undeclared major. Rickert is averaging 15.9 points and 6.3 rebounds in 22 games this season.

Anthony Maggio covers men’s basketball and

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