Make no mistake, Saturday’s trip to East Lansing, Mich. to take on No. 5 Michigan State (14-1, 3-0) marks the Gophers’ biggest challenge to this point in the season.
Yes, Minnesota (13-3, 2-1) played Syracuse -- who’s now 15-0 -- to the brink and actually had a chance to win late in Maui in November.
But this is different.
This is the Breslin Center. This is a Big Ten battle with a conference contender who Gophers head coach Richard Pitino called a “potential national championship team.” This game means more to both sides than a nonconference holiday tournament.
Talent-wise, on paper, the Spartans look to be the superior squad. Michigan State has four plays in Gary Parrish’s top 100 NBA Draft prospects on Cbssports.com (Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson and Keith Appling). The Gophers have none.
The Spartans provide a massive test, and the Gophers understand that.
“They’re really good at all five positions -- there’s not really anything they’re weak at,” Pitino said. “They’re big, they’re well-coached, they’re fast, they play great defense, they defend. It’s going to be a test.”
Minnesota beating the Spartans at Williams Arena would be a monumental victory. To do it on the road is going to require a special performance. The Gophers haven’t won a non-vacated game in East Lansing since 1990.
The Gophers are 2-0 in true road games this season, having topped Penn State and Richmond in their home gyms. But this one figures to be different.
“Obviously it’s going to be a lot nosier,” sophomore forward Joey King said. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge dealing with the noise, but we can’t let it be more than it is. We just have to focus on executing and taking care of business.”
So what’s it going to take to walk out with a victory this time around?
“We’ve got to go in there not intimidated,” Pitino said. “We’ve got to understand that all that other stuff is irrelevant -- and I know that’s easier said then done. ... We’ve just got to try to minimize as many mistakes as possible. We’ve got to try to stick with our game plan, communicate with each other, stay together and hopefully try to play as perfect a game as possible. If we come away with a win, great. If not, learn from it, play the next game.”
The Michigan State contest marks the beginning of a treacherous four-game stretch for Minnesota. Following Saturday’s matchup the Gophers return home to play No. 3 Ohio State, head to Iowa City, Iowa to play the 20th-ranked Hawkeyes and then come back to the Barn to take on No. 3 Wisconsin on Jan. 22.
But junior forward Oto Osenieks said he doesn’t know who the Gophers play after Ohio State, and he’d like to keep it that way.
“I’d prefer not to [know],” Osenieks said. “My focus [is] on the next game.”
It should be. Toppling the Spartans is a task big enough to fill anyone’s plate.