Michigan State cruised to the Big Ten regular-season title, and if it can claim the conference tournament crown there’s a shot it’ll earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Minnesota, on the other hand, will take any seed it can get.
A win over the seventh-ranked Spartans on Friday afternoon in the Big Ten quarterfinals might help the Golden Gophers punch their ticket, but that’ll be a tough task considering Michigan State handed them their worst loss in nearly eight years last month.
The Spartans (25-5) wrapped up the Big Ten title March 3 with a 64-59 win at Indiana, then closed the regular season with a 62-51 victory over then-No. 19 Purdue on March 8 to win the conference by four games over the Boilermakers and Illinois.
With the regular-season championship in hand, if Michigan State can take care of business in Indianapolis - and depending upon the results of other conference tournaments around the country - it may have a case for a top seed when the NCAA tournament field is set Sunday night.
First, though, the Spartans will have to do something they haven’t done since 2000 - win the Big Ten tournament.
“I guess I’m a little nervous about it because when you go in as a one seed, it’s your own tournament,” coach Tom Izzo said. “I’ve gone in there before as the one seed and lost and I’ve gone in there as a lower seed and won. You prepare very hard for that first game and then you just see how hard you can work.”
In fact, the conference tournament has been anything but pleasant for the Spartans. They’re 6-8 since 2001 and have been bounced in their first game three times.
Based on what happened in their two regular-season meetings with Minnesota (22-9), that shouldn’t be a problem in this tournament.
Big Ten player of the year Kalin Lucas had 24 points Dec. 31 in Minneapolis as Michigan State won 70-58 in the conference opener for both teams.
Lucas only had 10 points when the Spartans and Golden Gophers met in East Lansing on Feb. 4, but his lack of scoring wasn’t an issue. Durrell Summers had 21 and Michigan State won 76-47, handing then-No. 19 Minnesota its worst loss since falling by 36 at Indiana on Feb. 28, 2001.
“When you have the type of shooting we had, it makes for a long, long night,” coach Tubby Smith said. “They just outworked us and got every rebound and every loose ball.”
Minnesota’s chances of making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005 seemed to be in trouble as it dropped six of its final nine, including a 67-64 home loss to Michigan on Saturday.
The eighth-seeded Golden Gophers, though, fought off one of the conference’s late-surging teams in the first round of the tournament Thursday. Lawrence Westbrook had a team-high 14 points and Ralph Sampson III chipped in nine points and five blocks in a 66-53 win over Northwestern.
“Obviously it was a big win, I’m not going to lie,” said Westbrook, the only Golden Gopher to average double digits in scoring (12.4). “We watched TV. We hear what people are saying. But the only for sure way that we’re going to be in the tournament is if we just win.”
Westbrook had 11 and six points, respectively, in Minnesota’s two losses to the Spartans. Thirteen seems to be Westbrook’s magic number - if he scores that many or more, the Gophers are 14-2.
Michigan State has won 10 of 11 overall against Minnesota.
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