Saturday afternoon's battle with No. 5 Michigan State (14-1, 3-0) marks the beginning of a testing four-game stretch for the Gophers (13-3, 2-1) that features four ranked opponents, including three of the top five teams in the country. A win would be monumental for the Gophers' NCAA Tournament resume, but even a closely-contested loss could do wonders for Minnesota's confidence as it trudges through the toughest portion of its Big Ten schedule.
Here are my five things to watch for:
The point guard battle: DeAndre Mathieu has been a pleasant surprise for the Gophers this season as he's proven to be a viable floor general more than capable of leading first-year head coach Richard Pitino's up-tempo offense. Mathieu was the primary catalyst in the Gophers comeback win over Penn State on Wednesday when he scored 12 of his 16 points over the final 6:47. Saturday features a matchup between Mathieu and All-Big Ten senior guard Keith Appling. Mathieu struggled in the nonconference against teams with great length (Florida State and Syracuse), but likely has to win the point guard battle if the Gophers are to compete with Michigan State late into the ball game.
"DeAndre's certainly going to have his hands full," Pitino said. "I think he's excited about the opportunity. He's the type of kid who's got a big chip on his shoulder. We've got to make sure he understands that it's not about him proving that he's one of the best point guards in the conference, but just sticking to the game plan -- sometimes he does that a little bit."
Dealing with Dawson: Much has been made about the Gophers lack of production at the power forward spot this season with the combined efforts of sophomore Joey King and junior Oto Osenieks. Minnesota lost the power forward battle badly against Penn State as 6'6" forward Ross Travis gauged the Gophers for 18 points and 13 rebounds, while King and Osenieks combined for 12 points and just five boards. Osenieks said he still isn't happy with he and King's combined production.
"We need more from our position, especially rebounds," Osenieks said on Friday. "We've still got to improve."
The duo will have an opportunity to show improvement on Saturday against Spartan forward Branden Dawson. Dawson -- also 6'6" -- is a more athletic version of Travis who averages double-digits in the scoring column (10.7 points per game) and leads the green and white in rebounding (8.6 rebounds per game). Osenieks and King at the very least limit Dawson's production on the glass if Minnesota isn't to get man-handled in that department.
Where in the world is Austin Hollins?: Senior guard Austin Hollins was the Gophers best player in the nonconference slate as he scored with ease, made multiple highlight-reel dunks and showed a remarkable improvement on the glass (currently averaging 6.8 rebounds per game). But Hollins has struggled mightily in two of the Gophers three Big Ten battles. Hollins scored just two points on 1 of 9 shooting in the Gophers conference-opening loss to Michigan and finished with just four points in the Penn State victory. Minnesota needs a large contribution from its senior captain in East Lansing.
The health of Adriean Payne: Spartans senior big man Adriean Payne is without a doubt one of the best and most versatile big men in the Big Ten. Payne is averaging 16.2 points and 7.7 boards a game. And he's a huge threat from deep, where he's shooting 43.9 percent this season. But Spartans head coach Tom Izzo said Payne is "highly questionable" for Saturday's contest with a sprained right foot, according to USA Today's Joe Rexrode. Michigan State guard Travis Trice may also miss the game (sickness). Payne's absence could clear out the middle for Gophers junior center Elliott Eliason to dominate the interior game on both ends of the floor.
The Breslin Effect: The Gophers haven't won a non-vacated game in East Lansing, Mich. since 1990. There are two reasons for that: 1. Michigan State has had some really, really good teams. 2. The Breslin Center is really, really loud. It's a tough atmosphere for a Gophers team that's only faced two true road tests this season -- victories over Penn State and Richmond. Those two victories pale in comparison to the Izzone and the rest of the fans decked in green and white that make up and atmosphere that's nearly impossible to play well in. How the Gophers handle the always raucous crowd -- especially if they face an early deficit -- will play a large role in their success on Saturday.
"It's definitely going to be a challenge dealing with the noise," King said, "but we can't let it be more than it is. We just have to focus on executing and taking care of business."
Malik Smith -- The Great Equalizer: The Gophers are 11-point underdogs heading into East Lansing -- where they haven't won a non-vacated game since 1990. The Spartans have four legitimate NBA prospects in their starting lineup. The Gophers are undersized and have a handful of players who are inexperienced in this type of atmosphere. But there is one thing Minnesota does have: Malik Smith. Pitino has consistently talked of Smith's fearlessness. Smith is the guy who's described as someone who can make you rip your hair out with his shot selection, but can also win you a game. He almost did it against Syracuse (16 points on the strength of four triples), and he'll likely need to put forward a similar performance if the Gophers are to pull out the gigantic upset today.