The national runner-up one year ago, Michigan State believes it’s good enough to return to the Final Four.
Minnesota is just trying to reach the NCAA tournament, but could be playing its best ball at the right time.
The No. 11 Spartans captured a share of the Big Ten title, but wound up with the third seed in the conference tournament and a tough quarterfinal matchup Friday night in Indianapolis against the sixth-seeded Golden Gophers.
Seeking an encore after last season’s title game appearance against North Carolina, Michigan State (24-7) hasn’t had the smoothest of rides in 2009-10. Star guard Kalin Lucas missed time early last month with an ankle injury, coinciding with the Spartans’ first three-game losing streak in three years. Lucas is now healthy, but he’s averaging a pedestrian 9.0 points and shooting 31.6 percent in his last four games.
Michigan State will begin postseason play without starting guard Chris Allen, who averages 9.1 points. Coach Tom Izzo suspended the junior indefinitely earlier this week for not meeting responsibilities to his teammates. Allen’s status for later tournament games has not been decided.
Despite those speed bumps, the Spartans tied No. 5 Ohio State and No. 6 Purdue for the Big Ten title - their second straight and sixth since Izzo assumed head coaching duties in 1994-95.
“Really? That’s the one thing I don’t keep track of,” Izzo said after becoming the sixth coach in history with at least six Big Ten championships. “I keep track of national championships, and I want more of those.”
Izzo’s team is certainly a contender for the national title, especially if Raymar Morgan continues his recent strong play. The senior forward is averaging 15.8 points and 10.8 rebounds over his last four games, and he scored a season-high 22 with 10 boards in Sunday’s regular-season finale, a 64-48 home victory over Michigan.
“If he plays like he’s been playing lately, the sky is the limit for us and we can get back to the Final Four,” Lucas said.
Lucas had 22 points when the Spartans visited Minnesota (19-12) on Jan. 23, and Morgan finished with 17 points after making all six of his shots from the field. However, the rest of the team shot 10 of 41, and the Spartans barely got past the Golden Gophers 65-64.
Minnesota also gave Michigan State a handful Jan. 13 in East Lansing, as Lucas shot 3 of 14 and the Spartans struggled to a 36.2 percent shooting night in a 60-53 victory - their second-lowest point total at home this season.
The Spartans have won eight straight meetings in this series since a 69-55 loss at Minnesota on Feb. 11, 2006.
If the Golden Gophers can end that streak, they might earn themselves an NCAA tournament bid. They’ve already beaten the Buckeyes, now-No. 13 Wisconsin and then-No. 12 Butler this season.
“I just know that a win (Friday) is going to get us to the next round, and right now we’re just focused on winning the Big Ten tournament,” sophomore guard Devoe Joseph said. “If you win the Big Ten tournament, obviously, you go to the NCAA tournament.”
With the way they’re playing now, an upset of the Spartans may be more than a pipe dream. Minnesota has won five of seven overall, with the last two victories coming by a combined 56 points.
Joseph had 15 points to lead four Gophers in double figures in Thursday’s 76-55 opening-round victory over Penn State.
“Last time we played Michigan State we lost by one point and we made a lot of mistakes in the last four minutes, so I definitely think we can pull off the upset,” said Joseph, who had 16 points in the Jan. 23 loss. “They’re a good team and we’re definitely going to need to come and play real good basketball to beat them.”