Streaking Spartans, reeling Gophers meet again

Michigan State has won five straight; Minnesota has lost three in a row.

Minnesota guard Joe Coleman goes up for a basket against Ohio State on Feb. 14 at Williams Arena.  Smith hinted at lineup changes, which may include Coleman.

Marisa Wojcik

Minnesota guard Joe Coleman goes up for a basket against Ohio State on Feb. 14 at Williams Arena. Smith hinted at lineup changes, which may include Coleman.

Charlie Armitz

When Minnesota lost to Michigan State a month ago, the No. 10 Spartans were good, but not “scary” — which is how head coach Tubby Smith referred to them Tuesday.

Michigan State (11-3 Big Ten) has won five consecutive games — all by double digits — to overtake Ohio State as the conference leader with four games to play.

The No. 6 Spartans will face the Gophers on Wednesday at Williams Arena in a rematch of the two teams’ Jan. 25 contest, which Michigan State won 68-52 in East Lansing, Mich.

 The Spartans exposed Minnesota’s lack of size throughout the game, outrebounding the Gophers 32-25 while scoring 18 more points in the paint.

“I think the Michigan State game there was a game that got away from us,” Smith said. “We really didn’t give ourselves a chance.”

While the Spartans have dominated many opponents this season, they are probably a tougher match-up for the Gophers than any other team in the conference.

Their starting frontcourt of Draymond Green and Branden Dawson dropped 38 points on the Gophers on 16-for-21 shooting Jan. 25. Neither player is taller than 6-foot-7, yet both rank among the conference leaders in rebounds and blocks.

“They’ve got the best front line, I think, in the Big Ten, maybe in college basketball,” Smith said of the Spartans. “They’re big, they’re long and they’re strong.”

Minnesota, which leads the Big Ten in blocked shots, is big and long too, but it has often lacked physicality. The Gophers’ starting frontcourt of Ralph Sampson III and Rodney Williams has an athletic advantage over most teams, but the two forwards have been unable to capitalize on it.

The Gophers (5-9 Big Ten) have lost three straight games and sit in ninth place in the Big Ten.

Minnesota’s 64-53 loss to Northwestern on Saturday may have been its worst performance of the season, and Smith hinted Tuesday that he might change his starting lineup against the Spartans.

One possibility is to start inconsistent freshman guard Joe Coleman in place of struggling sophomore guard Austin Hollins.

After being held scoreless in four consecutive games, Coleman scored 12 points against Northwestern on 6-for-7 shooting.

“I was able to get the ball in positions where I’m more used to scoring,” Coleman said. “I know I’m a scorer, but I haven’t been able to get the ball in those four games.”

Coleman had nine points and a team-high eight rebounds in the Jan. 25 loss to Michigan State. He has been one of the Gophers’ more physical players all season, even when he has slumped on offense.

Yet he acknowledged that Minnesota came out of East Lansing “a little banged up” after its most physical affair of the season.

“[Michigan State] was definitely the toughest team that we’ve played so far,” Coleman said. “We just need to be more mentally prepared knowing who we’re going against and just be more physical.”

He added: “I think we were trying to be Mr. Nice Guys and not being aggressors, and that’s what we need to be tomorrow night if we expect to come out with a win.”