Minnesota spent most of the first six weeks of the season building an impressive record at home, where it won 10 of its 12 games to remain the Big Ten’s only unbeaten team.
It’s about to get its first major test at Williams Arena.
Tenth-ranked Michigan State will be the No. 21 Gophers’ first opponent in conference play on Wednesday afternoon when Minnesota looks to match the program’s best start in 60 years.
The Gophers (12-0) made a big improvement in coach Tubby Smith’s first season in 2007-08, winning 20 games and earning an NIT berth after recording just nine wins the previous season.
Expectations are higher in 2008-09, and Minnesota has been unblemished thus far, needing a victory Wednesday to record the program’s best start since the 1948-49 team opened 13-0. The Gophers’ biggest win came at a neutral site, 70-64 over then-No. 9 Louisville on Dec. 20 in Glendale, Ariz.
Other than that and a one-point win at Colorado State in November, Minnesota’s games have all been in Minneapolis. The Gophers won those 10 non-conference contests by an average of 15.1 points, and on Sunday recorded their most lopsided victory of the season.
Minnesota hit a season-high 11 3-pointers, jumping out to a 26-point halftime lead and going on to beat High Point 82-56.
“We were just rolling, getting on the right pace,” said guard Blake Hoffarber, who scored 11 points off the bench. “When everyone’s clicking like that and everyone’s playing well, it’s tough to beat us.”
Hoffarber connects on 46.4 percent of his 3-pointers, making him the team’s top outside threat. The Gophers are hoping that freshman center Ralph Sampson III eventually becomes their top inside threat, and against High Point, Sampson scored a season-high 17 points and grabbed six rebounds.
Sampson will have a tough test on Wednesday when he goes up against Michigan State’s Goran Suton. The senior center missed six games with a knee injury and the Spartans (9-2) lost twice, but he’s been impressive in his last two contests.
Suton went 7-of-8 from the field and scored 18 points in a 67-63 win over then-No. 5 Texas on Dec. 20, then went 7-of-9 Saturday against Oakland, scoring 16 points and grabbing nine rebounds.
“G did some good things for us,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He’s getting tired faster than he used to, because he’s missed a lot of time. We’re still waiting for him to be all the way back.”
He’ll need to be sharp against Minnesota because the Spartans are likely to be missing Delvon Roe. The prized freshman forward was averaging 7.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in his last four games, but is doubtful for Wednesday after rolling his left ankle against Oakland.
Michigan State leads the Big Ten with 79.5 points per game and boasts the most individual threats of any team in the conference. Leading scorer Raymar Morgan is averaging 15.3 points, and though he’s only averaged 8.0 in his last two games, he’s chipped in with nine assists, doubling his total from his first nine games.
The Spartans’ best passer, though, is sophomore guard Kalin Lucas, who is tied for the conference lead with 6.5 assists per game. Lucas is shooting just 34.5 percent, but Izzo felt his 15-point, six-assist effort against Oakland - when he hit 3-of-4 3-pointers - was encouraging.
“I think that might have been Kalin’s best game as a Spartan,” Izzo said. “He controlled the tempo, he showed poise and he got the ball to the guys that were open.”
The Spartans have won eight of nine against the Gophers, including 65-59 in East Lansing on Jan. 5 when Morgan had a career-high 31 points.