The Big Ten widely is considered the premier conference in the nation, with No. 9 Minnesota and No. 18 Michigan State among the league's six ranked teams.
Both squads anticipate Monday's meeting in Minneapolis being the first of many tough contests as conference play begins.Michigan (No. 2), Indiana (5), Ohio State (8) and Illinois (11) are the other Big Ten teams ranked in the top 20, but Minnesota and defending league co-champion Michigan State plan on making their own noise in a seemingly wide-open league.Tubby Smith, 3-15 all-time versus the Spartans, may have his best team in his six seasons coaching the Gophers (12-1), who have won eight straight since suffering their only loss to now-No. 1 Duke in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament Nov. 22.Their ranking technically is the program's highest spot in the AP poll since reaching No. 5 in 1981-82, though the 1996-97 team that reached the Final Four was ranked as high as No. 2 before that season was vacated due to NCAA infractions.Minnesota won its final non-conference tuneup, 75-50 over Lafayette on Dec. 22."We can definitely contend for a Big Ten title, and we know that," said Rodney Williams, the team's leading scorer at 13.0 points per game. "We've just got to come out and prove that to everybody else."We want to come out and get this `W' right away and see what happens."Trevor Mbakwe is averaging a team-best 7.2 rebounds for a squad that leads the Big Ten and is among the national leaders averaging 16.7 offensive boards.Minnesota and Michigan State each are among the country's best outrebounding opponents by an average of 10.2 per game."Michigan State (is) probably one of the most physical teams in the country," Mbakwe said. "The level of intensity picks up, and we're excited for the challenge."As long as we control the boards we'll put ourselves in a good position."The Spartans are coming off their sixth straight victory -- a physical 67-56 home win over Texas on Dec. 22 that coach Tom Izzo said was similar to what his team can expect during Big Ten play."It was a physical war and there were bodies everywhere," Izzo said. "That's the way it is going to be in our league so we might as well get used to it."Defense is a staple in Big Ten play, and Michigan State is among the best. It leads the conference in scoring defense (56.1), opponents' field goal percentage (35.3) and blocked shots (85).The Spartans' 112 steals are second to Minnesota's 132, and each of those totals are bound to increase Monday. The Gophers' 14.3 turnovers per contest are better than only Michigan State's league-worst 15.6."It's going to be a hell of a grind," Izzo told the program's official website. "Some people worry about peaking too early. We (haven't) done that, I can promise you."Senior big man Derrick Nix busted out for career-high 25 points while adding 11 rebounds against Texas. He entered that contest averaging 7.5 points."Nix and I have a love-hate relationship -- I love to hate him sometimes," Izzo said.Michigan State and Minnesota have met five times with both teams ranked since 1999, with the Spartans winning each. They beat the unranked Gophers 66-61 on Feb. 22 in the most recent meeting, their 12th victory in the last 13 matchups.