Tubby Smith’s coaching debut in the Big Ten couldn’t come against a tougher opponent in a more intimidating environment.
Smith’s Minnesota squad won’t have it easy when it visits the Breslin Center to face No. 6 Michigan State on Saturday.
After going 263-83 and winning a national championship in 10 seasons at Kentucky, Smith left for Minnesota after the Wildcats went 22-12 last season and rumors swirled that he would be fired. He took over a Gophers program that went 9-22 in 2006-07 and has been to the NCAA tournament only once this decade (2004-05).
Now, after going 10-2 against a less formidable non-conference schedule, Smith and the Gophers look to improve on last season’s 3-13 league mark.
“We’re excited about the Big Ten portion of our schedule,” said Smith, who needs three wins to reach 400 for his career. “It’s a test every night in the Big Ten and we will be ready for each test that comes our way.”
The first comes Saturday against the Spartans (12-1), who look to win their 10th in a row since losing 68-63 against then-No. 2 UCLA on Nov. 20. Michigan State will also try to extend its home winning streak against unranked Big Ten teams to 34 games, while looking to beat the Gophers for a ninth consecutive time at home and seventh in eight overall meetings in the series.
Minnesota has lost four straight Big Ten road games and 14 of its last 16 away from home in conference play.
Saturday’s matchup is the first between Smith and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo since the Spartans beat Kentucky 94-88 in double overtime in the regional finals of the 2005 NCAA tournament. Izzo went 4-2 versus Smith’s Kentucky teams.
Though the Spartans shot 55.2 percent and scored their most points of the season in a 93-75 home win over Wisconsin-Green Bay last Saturday, Izzo hopes for a better defensive outing from his team against Minnesota.
“We have so much work to do defensively to live up to any kind of billing we’ve received, it’s a joke,” said Izzo, who is 4-0 in conference home openers. “They’re not that good yet.”
Michigan State allowed the Phoenix to shot 49.2 percent—well above the 39.1 percent opponents are shooting against the Spartans—and gave up almost 12 points more than the 63.1 the team allows.
“We didn’t play defense,” said guard Travis Walton, who had 11 assists versus Green Bay. “We can’t go into conference play and think we’ll score 90 and give up 70. That’s unacceptable.”
The Spartans, though, have played well offensively, averaging 78.7 points and shooting 50.0 percent from the field.
Raymar Morgan had 24 points and eight rebounds last Saturday. He averages 17.4 points and had 14 in the Spartans’ 70-46 home win over Minnesota on Jan. 24 in the teams’ only meeting last season.
Minnesota hopes to bounce back from an 81-64 loss at UNLV on Sunday that snapped a seven-game winning streak. The Gophers also lost 75-61 at Florida State on Nov. 27 during a non-conference slate that included wins at Iowa State and at home over Santa Clara.
Freshman Blake Hoffarber had 13 points and senior Dan Coleman 10 on Sunday for the Gophers, who shot 39.3 percent. It was the lowest scoring game for Coleman - who averages a team-leading 14.8 points - in his last seven after averaging 19.8 in his previous six contests.
Minnesota looks for its first road victory over a ranked team since a 109-78 win over then-No. 21 Wisconsin on Feb. 12, 1994.