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The Morning Dish – Wednesday, December 28, 2016

December 28, 2016 The Morning Dish No Comments

This morning, when they inevitably think again about the opportunity that got away last night, Minnesota players and coaches will have to remind themselves time and again: it was only one game.

Forgive the Golden Gophers if they struggle for a bit in taking any comfort in that, though. Because, for all the improvement it looks like they have made through their 13-game non-conference schedule, the start of Big Ten play left the Gophers with a 0-1 record after a 75-74 loss at home to Michigan State Tuesday night.

This one will hurt, at least for a while. For one, Minnesota woke up today already having dropped a precious home game in conference, and it did so against a Michigan State team that is beaten up and struggled through quite a bit of its own non-conference schedule. The Spartans played again without star freshman Miles Bridges, who is still out with an ankle injury, and without him they recently lost at home to Northeastern and have struggled to put away even lesser competition at home.

For another, the Golden Gophers seemed to have this in the bag, leading by 14 points with just over 11 minutes left in regulation. Minnesota was in complete control for 30 minutes, looking ready to get off to a good start in league play and take a step towards validating what more and more have been thinking, that the Gophers are vastly improved and an NCAA Tournament-caliber team, and not just the product of a very friendly November and December schedule.

Credit for MSU goes to freshman Nick Ward, a load inside who had 22 points and 10 rebounds, but also to senior Alvin Ellis. A player who had 52 points in 13 games combined this year and is a career 2.3-point per game scorer, the 6-foot-4 guard had the game of his life, blowing away his previous career high with 20 points, including the tying and go-ahead free throws with 11 seconds left in regulation.

For Michigan State, there’s little way to overstate how good this win is. Any road victories in conference play are gold, and even more so when a team has been struggling. Add in that Minnesota came in with a lot of momentum and that Tom Izzo’s teams regularly don’t hit their stride until February or March anyway, and this has to be as satisfying as they come.

Minnesota has plenty of opportunities left in the Big Ten to recover from Tuesday, but it next faces a tough trip to Purdue on New Year’s Day, with a 0-2 league start squarely in view. The Gophers then have games at Northwestern and at home against Ohio State before they get their chance for revenge against the Spartans in just two weeks on Jan. 11. With a schedule like that, while there is plenty of time to make up for letting Tuesday’s game get away, Minnesota may not be able to say the same if it suffers the same fate again in two weeks.

Side Dishes:

  • It’s looking like it will be a very long season at Texas. Kent State lost to Oregon State by 19 points its last time out less than a week ago. That’s the same Oregon State that has a 4-9 record and has lost to Lamar and Savannah State at home. Yet on Tuesday, the Golden Flashes won at Texas 63-58, rallying from a halftime deficit for the win. Kent Sophomore guard Jaylin Walker was the best player on the floor with 24 points, and the Longhorns lost at home for the second time in non-conference play.
    We must say, while we don’t take any joy in the Horns’ struggles, we do continue to enjoy seeing just just how ridiculous Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby’s comments were a couple years ago, when he suggested schools like Texas deserved special privileges among Division I schools because “Texas and Northern Iowa aren’t much alike.” Texas has now lost to Northern Iowa, Texas-Arlington and Kent State just in the past nine months.
  • Three other Big Ten games were generally one-sided, with Northwestern (87-77 over Penn State, in a game not as close as the final score), Maryland (84-59 over Illinois) and Wisconsin (72-52 over Rutgers) all won their conference openers.
  • Like Michigan State, SMU got a solid road win to start its conference schedule, defeating Tubby Smith’s Memphis team 58-54 in American play. (It was a tough night for former Minnesota coaches looking for a big start at home in conference, too.) The Mustangs have won seven straight.
  • UC Santa Barbara got just its second win of the season, rallying to defeat Cal State Bakersfield 62-60 in overtime.

Today’s Menu:

  • Conference play continues to kick into gear, with the American, ACC, Big East and Big Ten among those diving in.
  • Cincinnati and Temple open with a big one right away in the AAC (8 p.m. Eastern, ESPNU), with the Owls looking to hold serve at home. Another good one has Houston at Connecticut (3 p.m., ESPNU), with the Cougars possessing an opportunity for a road win, and especially if the Huskies are without Jalen Adams, who is still recovering from a concussion and will be a gametime decision.
  • The ACC is led by a huge one as Virginia goes to Louisville (7 p.m., ESPN2). Also, Wake Forest is on the road at Florida State (5 p.m., ESPN2).
  • Providence will look to bounce back from a poor loss at Boston College when it faces Xavier, though an even bigger game in the Big East is Seton Hall at Creighton (8 p.m., FS2).
  • Iowa seemed to be improved in its last couple games before Christmas. The Hawkeyes get a chance to prove it when they go to Purdue (8:30 p.m., Big Ten Network).
  • When all is said and done, the game of the year in the Pac-12 may be the first game, with UCLA at Oregon (9 p.m., ESPN2). The Ducks have been kind of forgotten after a few early losses, but can get right back on the radar with a home win here.
  • Among non-conference games, none will be bigger than UNC Wilmington traveling to Clemson, with former Seahawks coach Brad Brownell going up against his former school. These two could certainly be on the bubble fighting each other for an NCAA Tournament spot in March.
  • Monmouth has what some might consider a free shot when it takes on North Carolina (7 p.m., ESPNU), considering no one is expecting the Hawks to win at Carolina. But after the way the Hawks were treated by the selection committee a year ago, it’s still critical that they have a good showing here on the road.

Enjoy your Wednesday.

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