MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — With smooth moves, a sharp jump shot and an unavoidable 6-foot-11 presence on the floor, Jaren Jackson Jr. has given Michigan State another vast skillset as the lone freshman in an otherwise-all-sophomore starting lineup.
This performance was his best yet.
Jackson scored a career-high 27 points on 10-for-14 shooting in just 22 minutes for the second-ranked Spartans, who cruised to their ninth consecutive victory by beating Minnesota 87-57 on Tuesday.
“He certainly helped his draft status tonight,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said.
The Spartans (25-3, 13-2) notched their best 28-game record in program history and pulled within a half-game of first-place Ohio State in the Big Ten despite just five points in 25 minutes from Miles Bridges, who had five of his team’s 27 assists on 32 baskets.
“He’s just an unselfish superstar,” Jackson said. “That doesn’t happen much.”
The Spartans, who won their previous three games by three points each, had a 49-23 rebounding advantage. They padded their 18-point average victory margin, the third-highest in the country entering the night, with a dominant performance from start to finish.
Nick Ward had 13 points and nine rebounds and Cassius Winston pitched in 12 points for the Spartans, who made their first six 3-point attempts and finished 14 for 22 from behind the arc.
“I feel a little bit reluctant to give us too much credit because we played a team that was so depleted,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said.
Isaiah Washington scored 18 points and Jordan Murphy added 16 points and seven rebounds for the Gophers (14-14, 3-12), who lost their eighth straight game. Jackson was just too much for them to handle, let alone the rest of the Spartans.
“Jaren is a special player, and he’s getting better every day,” Izzo said, adding: “He’s really a good shooter, but he’s gotten so much better at putting the ball on the floor. I think we did a great job as a team of getting him good shots.”
NOT SO HOT
When the Big Ten schedule was finalized over the summer, this game looked like one of the marquee matchups that would help shape the conference race. That was before Minnesota fell apart in early January, bulldozed by the sudden absence of senior center Reggie Lynch amid allegations of sexual assault against him.
Any long shot the Gophers had of shocking the Spartans was lessened significantly when starters Amir Coffey (shoulder) and Dupree McBrayer (shin) were again held out of the lineup. Coffey has missed 10 of the last 12 games. McBrayer, after playing through the pain for several weeks, sat out for the second straight time.
“Not at Minnesota, not at Michigan State, not at Duke or Kentucky, can you have three starters and your sixth man out and expect to play at a level,” Izzo said.
Then whatever mystery about the outcome that might have still lingered at tipoff was erased by Michigan State’s long-range shooting. Winston swished the first three 3s, Jackson knocked down the next two, and Bridges hit one, his only made field goal of the first half, to build an 18-6 lead in less than five minutes.
BACK TO THE BARN
Last season at Minnesota, the Spartans rallied for a 75-74 overtime victory. They beat the Gophers 69-61 here on Jan. 2, 2016, the only other visit they’ve made to Williams Arena during Pitino’s five-year guidance of the program. Izzo’s first experience on the raised floor actually came more than four decades ago, when his Northern Michigan team lost at Minnesota in 1974 and 1976.
Michigan State: The Spartans are built for a long run in the NCAA Tournament, with an eighth Final Four appearance and even a second national championship for Izzo well within reach during a season played in front of a backdrop of past sexual assault allegations that arose against the program. The conference title is the goal for now, and the Spartans have a favorable finish with two of their last three opponents in the bottom five of the Big Ten. Ohio State, which plays at Penn State on Thursday, still has trips to Michigan and Indiana.
“We’re just trying to get better every game, fix the little stuff, because during the tournament we’re not going to be able to fix that,” Bridges said.
Minnesota: The Gophers have tumbled so hard since they were ranked 14th in The Associated Press poll the week of Dec. 4 that they’re essentially out of consideration for an NIT bid now too. With Bakary Konate at center and Washington at shooting guard, this was their 11th different starting lineup of the season.
“It’s something that’s going to make us stronger, and we’ve just got to keep looking at it that way,” Murphy said.
Michigan State: Plays at Northwestern on Saturday. The Spartans have won eight consecutive games against the Wildcats.
Minnesota: Plays at Wisconsin on Monday, the only meeting this season between the border-state rivals. The Badgers have won seven straight games overall in the series and six in a row at home.
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