MSU men in search of Sweet 16 berth; face Minnesota in second round of NCAAs

Kyle Turk, Sports Editor

Photo: Michael Epps/Focal Point News

By Kyle Turk

DES MOINES, Iowa — Michigan State faces a familiar foe in its quest to reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015. Big Ten opponent Minnesota already faced the Spartans back on Feb. 9, a 79-55 MSU win at the Breslin Center.

That said, it’s a vastly different team now. The Golden Gophers won two games in the Big Ten tournament including a quarterfinal win over Purdue.

The wins in Chicago firmly planted Richard Pitino’s team in the NCAA tourney field, and with the new sense of optimism has come inspired play from U-M’s three best players.

Guard Amir Coffey is playing like someone who wants an NBA contract, forward Jordan Murphy made the all-Big Ten tournament team after averaging 17 points in the three games, and freshman Gabe Kalscheur led Minnesota in scoring after picking up a team-high 24 points on Thursday.

“Our guys battled,” Pitino said at Friday’s practice day. “Now we’ve gotta be ready, obviously, because Michigan State [is a] terrific, terrific team who is playing as well as any team in the country.”

The tenth-seeded Golden Gophers upset 7-seed Louisville on Thursday, winning 86-76 over a team Pitino’s father used to coach not too long ago.

For Michigan State, there were still some positives despite being pushed for the majority of the game by 15-seed Bradley, winning 76-65. While Bradley kept Cassius Winston from distributing the ball – the Big Ten player of the year had just four assists – MSU was able to get to the free-throw line, making 25 of 26 attempts and keeping the game just out of reach for the upset-minded Braves.

Julian Mitchell’s recap from MSU’s opening-round win over Bradley

A conference matchup in a NCAA tournament setting

It’s an odd thing to see the Golden Gophers at this stage for MSU. Usually, conference opponents aren’t scheduled to play each other in the second round. For both teams, better-than-expected conference tournament results have both teams feeling confident of a long run in this tournament. Regardless, MSU players were optimistic ahead of their 24th game against a Big Ten opponent this season.

“A lot easier scout,” senior forward Kenny Goins said. “We’ve got game film on them against us, so it’s easier and you know them. Just going into the game and also I think we match up pretty well against them as a whole, inside and outside so we just know what to give them and what to expect.”

Goins was solid defensively on Thursday against the Braves, but had a wayward offensive performance, making just one of his 10 shots to end up with 3 points on the afternoon.

“I missed a couple shots, it happens,” Goins said. “Kobe, LeBron, Ray Allen, the best shooters miss shots. I kinda had a little slump the last two games but I still feel as confident as ever in my shot. I’ll continue to keep shooting.”

On Aaron Henry

The unavoidable discussion on Friday was related to Izzo and Aaron Henry’s heated discussion during a timeout. Players past and present have supported Izzo’s methods in the hours following the social media outrage, and Henry was ready to get back to basketball on Friday.

“It’s not that huge to me, because I’ve been through that before,” Henry said. “It’s just the first time that a lot of people saw that. It’s a clean slate, I’m ready to play.”

With the freshman a vital part of MSU’s play down the stretch, Kyle Ahrens on the bench with yet another injury, there were plenty of questions – and answers – about Izzo’s conduct yesterday. Izzo himself made sure to speak his mind on the past 24 hours.

“I just don’t think people understand that coaches, at least this coach, relies on his relationships with his players,” Izzo said. “I think more than any coach in the country. That’s an egotistical or selfish statement or self-proclaimed. But I think it’s been earned. The number of players that called me last night had already called Aaron, and that thing was, I won’t say it was nothing…To me, the way it blew up was ridiculous.”

Henry will likely now be under the microscope even further on Saturday, likely drawing a matchup with at least one of Coffey or Kalscheur and needing production offensively as well.

“It’s not a big deal,” Henry said. “It’s just him coaching. I don’t see what’s so wrong with that. What, do you want me to be quiet if I’m not hustling, if I’m not doing this or that, do you want me to just wave him off? I wouldn’t want that for myself as a player. I’m glad he’s on me like that, it means he cares about me as a player. He does that with everybody.”

Finding Nick Ward

For Michigan State, this may be the game to finally unleash Nick Ward again after Xavier Tillman’s standout play in Ward’s absence. The junior forward is still recovering from an injury to his shooting hand back in mid-February and returned for all three games of the Big Ten tournament last weekend. With Murphy and 6-foot-10 Daniel Oturu inside, Tillman and Ward may see a lot more time together after playing sparingly together in the last four games.

“I’ve made great strides,” Ward said. “Last week wasn’t the best. This week I’m starting to feel normal and stuff like that. As far as catching the ball it is a bit of a challenge. It’s something I have to get used to.”

Ward was efficient yesterday but went unused down the stretch, playing just 3:20 in the second half. For MSU, avoiding foul trouble inside and being comfortable with using their bigs – Thomas Kithier only played once the game was out of reach – will be the focal points.

“We all told him to be ready because we’re going to need him if we’re going to go anywhere in this tournament,” Goins said. “We’ve shown we can win without him but we’re not nearly as good of a team as we are without him. I don’t think we need to tell him anything really.”

The call

MSU-Minnesota will tip 30 minutes after the end of Michigan’s matchup with Florida, likely around 7:45 p.m. Eastern. The game will be broadcasted by CBS, while Joey Ellis and Julian Mitchell will be on-air for WDBM’s live radio call.