At least it’s over. The Gophers fell to the Michigan State Spartans 74-58 on Thursday night, their 17th loss in 18 games at the Breslin Center. The defeat drops Minnesota back under .500 in Big Ten play at 2-3, leaving them at 8-7 on the season.
The Gophers hung with an excellent opponent for much of the night, but the No. 8 Spartans’ duo of Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman was simply too much, with Tillman putting up a first half double-double and Winston taking over down the stretch on the way to a combined 56 points. Daniel Oturu led the Gophers with 22 points and 10 rebounds.
“We don’t have the size and physicality they do,” said coach Richard Pitino after the game, succinctly summing up a key difference between his team and the nation’s preseason No. 1.
Some other differences that played out:
Rebounding. Both teams struggled from the field – 23-59, 5-20 from three for the Gophers, 28-65, 6-20 from three for the Spartans – and turnovers were just 12-11 in favor of Minnesota, but the game was lost on the boards. Rebounding advantages have carried the U in recent wins, but they went up against a different animal on Thursday.
The Spartans entered leading the Big Ten in rebounding and this outcome was no different as they won the battle on the boards 48-30, including 19 on the offensive end. Tillman especially came to play, racking up 12 before the break and finishing with 16 to go along with 19 points.
“We were getting stops, we were just not getting rebounds,” said Pitino. “It’s just what they do.”
Free throws. Free-throw shooting had been another strength over Gophers’ recent run, but that also came to a halt. After 101 attempts over their previous five games, hitting 89% of them, the team got to the line just 8 times, with only Oturu and Marcus Carr even attempting free throws.
Michigan State doubled them up with 16 attempts, and was generally the aggressor. The better team generally uses the line to their advantage, and that was indeed the case.
Backcourt shooting. When the guards hit shots, the Gophers a very tough team to beat; when they don’t, they’re susceptible, and it was the latter which played out. Carr and Gabe Kalscheur combined to finish just 5-19, going 1-12 in the first half, and 2-9 from downtown, missing a number of open looks. Carr did finish with 11 points and 6 assists despite battling foul trouble, but the last shot of the night was him air-balling a three, and it seemed only fitting.
Of course, it bears repeating that a loss at the Breslin Center is not a bad loss. Michigan State has fallen just once since Thanksgiving, to Duke, and the Gophers did have some bright spots:
Frontcourt play. On a night when they didn’t get much help, Oturu and Alihan Demir kept Minnesota in the game, whether it was Oturu running the floor and cleaning up misses on the glass or Demir scoring off the dribble and recording a couple of nice plays on the defensive end.
Oturu’s 22 points and 10 rebounds marked his with his sixth double-double in seven games, and Demir had 10 points and 8 on 5-8 shooting to go along with 3 blocks. Both missed a couple of bad box-outs, but they weren’t the reason for the loss. Oturu did briefly leave with a wrist injury late in the second half, and though he came back shortly thereafter it’s something to keep an eye on.
Payton Willis. He didn’t light up the stat sheet, but his presence was nonetheless a positive one. Back in the starting lineup for the first time in three-and-a-half weeks following an ankle injury, Willis chipped in 7 points and 4 assists, giving some nice minutes handling the ball while Carr sat with foul trouble. A healthy Willis gives the team a second ball-handler and a knockdown three-point shooter, two lacking pieces, and makes them more complete on both ends of the floor. They’ll need his health moving forward.
Unfortunately, a tough performance against a good team doesn’t earn any breaks in the Big Ten. Next up is a Sunday home date with Michigan, the second of five top-20 matchups in the coming two-and-a-half weeks.