Gophers appear ready for Spartan War

Categories: Sports
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                                                                             Photo by emoeby via Flickr

A Purdue loss at Ohio State tonight would give the Gophers an opportunity to elevate themselves into a first-place Big Ten tie with the team they will face tomorrow night, Michigan State. The 14th ranked Spartans currently sit atop the conference at 7-2.  #13 Purdue is second at 6-2.  The refueled #19 Gophers plug on with a three-way tie (Penn State, Illinois) for third at 6-3.

Story lines abound as the Spartans enter the contest coming off a stunning Sunday home loss to ascending Penn State.  It should also be noted that second-leading scorer/rebounded Raymar Morgan appears doubtful to play, as he's been ill with walking pneumonia.  Yet, looming above these caveats is undoubtedly the sour way the Spartans closed out 2008 with their December 31st, 70-58 stomping of the U at the Barn.  Recall that the Gophers entered that game 12-0.

But the New Year brings with it new hope.  Minnesota's 59-36 rolling of #21 Illinois last week was the club's best game since their 1/15 overtime win at Wisconsin.  The Gophers appeared reinvigorated, and will enter tomorrow night well-rested, with their first game in a week.  Of additional sanguine note is the Gophers' 80 percent win clip on the road (4-1), when contrasted with the Spartans' pedestrian 7-2 record (this is a Tom Izzo team) on their home court. 

Leading Spartan scorer Kalin Lucas blurred his way about Minneapolis last month with 24 points, and the Gophers will undoubtedly need to find a way to downshift him into third gear.  Morgan's absence will surely behoove the U on the glass -- Michigan St. is tops in the conference in rebounding at 39.9 per contest.

With nine conference games left before the Big Ten Tournament, Minnesota has already accrued some signature wins to date, namely: their 12/20 win over Louisville, the 1/3 win over Ohio State, and the aforementioned victories over Wisconsin and Illinois.  But a win at East Lansing would add an exclamation mark to the resume -- all but forcing (short of a Gopher collapse) NCAA bracketeers to grace us with nothing short of a 5-seed come March Madness.

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One final facet that is well-worthy of mention herein has been the continued growth (pun lamely intended) of Gopher freshman big men Colton Iverson and Lil' Ralphy Sampson. Both young men are ranked in the top 32 nationally in block percentage, a stat that tracks the percentage of an opponents' two point shot attempts blocked by the player while on the floor.

Sampson's pedigree appears readily overt with each passing week, as evidenced by his continued comfortability in the paint, and exclamated by his stellar 13 point, 8 rebound, 6 block performance against Indiana on 1/25.  His 10 point, 7 rebound follow-up effort against Illinois also deserves praise.

And for what the Yankton, S.D.- bred Iverson may lack in style points, the kid makes up for in grit.  If Detroit Piston guard Allen Iverson is monikered "The Answer," then Colton Iverson is "The Hard-Ass Answer."  It's rare for a Big Ten freshman big man to display the fearlessness that Iverson has displayed both in swinging with the big trees and also diving about with the rapid roots.  For a more detailed contrast on the two, please click here.    

At present, the Gophers have just one ranked opponent remaining on their schedule.  A win tomorrow night could be the key to bracketing up a first-round NCAA creampuff come March. 

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