Michigan State Basketball: Why Minnesota Will Be Solid Test to Start B1G Slate
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
The Minnesota Golden Gophers haven't been all too relevant when it comes down to which teams are winning Big Ten basketball championships.
But the tables may turn this year.
And the Michigan State Spartans (11-2) should take note when they travel to Minneapolis for a New Year's Eve Big Ten season opener with the Gophers (12-1).
It's an ideal matchup for a team like the Spartans looking to test its mettle.
Derrick Nix is fresh off a career effort of 25 points, 11 rebounds and four steals during Michigan State's 67-56 win over Texas. Keith Appling looks as sharp as ever, making a serious case to be considered one of the nation's elite guards.
Most important for MSU to limit?
Appling, a junior, is certainly one of the best in the Big Ten.
And if the Spartans are to find success this winter, Adreian Payne will have to be a factor in the paint and on the glass, complementing Nix as part of the Spartans' 1-2 frontcourt punch. Payne and Nix have been part of Tom Izzo's rotation experiments the past few years, especially the past two.
The more comfortable Izzo gets with Nix and Payne, the more the Spartans stand to benefit.
While Michigan State seemingly has enough talent to take down anyone in the land, it wouldn't do itself a favor by overlooking Minnesota, specifically senior Trevor Mbakwe, who missed last season due to injury but has set a strong tone so far this year.
The Mbakwe Factor
It's been a while. But Mbakwe had performances against Michigan State worth mentioning.
In 2011, Mbakwe scored 13 points and had 10 rebounds in a 53-48 loss to the Spartans. Earlier that season, he poured in 17 points and nine rebounds in a losing effort. Despite solid outings in 2010-11 versus the Spartans, Mbakwe struggled to find consistency with his shot.
In the 53-48 loss, he shot 4-for-12. In the earlier 71-62 loss, he shot 7-for-12.
Of course, Derrick Nix will be tasked with stopping Mbakwe, who at 6'8" and 245 pounds, is about an inch shorter and 25 pounds lighter than Nix.
Mbakwe has been good for double-digit scoring in three of his past five games and boasts about an 80 percent free-throw success rate. If the game is close New Year's Eve, Mbakwe could take control by trampling his way to the rim in an attempt to get to the line.
Keith Appling and Co. Have to Contain Andre and Austin Hollins
The Hollins duo isn't related.
But the pair are like brothers, according to Andre. Wait, or was that Austin who said that?
Michigan State has the guards to counteract the Hollins.
Appling and Gary Harris give Izzo two great defenders in the backcourt. Branden Dawson's defense has morphed into something of its own. Most were aware of his potential, but Dawson has really blossomed into an effective defender on and off the ball. His versatility is a bonus, giving the Spartans a strong 2 and 3 all in one convenient package.
Winning is a more likely scenario for Michigan State if it finds a way to cap the Hollins. The means are at Izzo's disposal.
Gophers sophomore Joe Coleman is a streaky shooter—young, but dangerous. He's a pickpocket too, already with 18 steals compared to the 23 he had in 2011-12.
Rodney Williams Presents Athletic Challenge for Dawson, Payne and Nix
Failing to mention and address forward Rodney Williams would be a mistake.
The 6'7", 205-pound senior averages 13.4 points and about 29 minutes per game. He's a staple of the Gophers offense. While his point production is up over a point from last year, so is his turnover ratio. He's averaging 2.1 turnovers compared to 1.6 in 2011-12.
He's quick to the boards. He's quick to the ball. He'll be a haul for the Spartans sent to guard him.
Minnesota versus Michigan State has become increasingly entertaining to watch, stemming back to the Colton Iverson-Draymond Green confrontation two years ago. Minnesota is athletic and able to run with Michigan State.
The only real question is this: Are the Gophers all hype? The same could be asked for Michigan State, which couldn't really ask for a better conference schedule-opening test.
Follow Bleacher Report's Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
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