Saddle Up: It's about to get real for MSU

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It remains blown away by "Paperman," no pun intended.

No. 18 Minnesota at No. 12 Michigan State, 7 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network

Yes, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio State have dominated the discussion about the Big Ten title race in the past week. But Michigan State is definitely in the mix with a 7-2 record.

The Spartans can make another statement about their championship potential when they face a Minnesota squad that has struggled in recent weeks. Michigan State lost its Big Ten opener at Minnesota on New Year’s Eve.

But the two teams have traveled in opposite directions since that matchup. The Gophers have lost four of their past six. The Spartans have amassed a 7-1 record since that loss. And they’re a legit contender for the conference crown.

If the Gophers are going to reverse their recent misfortune against Michigan State -- they’ve lost nine of 11 against the Spartans under Tubby Smith, and they’ve never won in East Lansing during his tenure -- they’ll have to tweak an offense that’s allowing Big Ten teams to shoot 43.4 percent from the field (ninth in the conference). In Sunday’s three-point win over Iowa, the Gophers missed seven of their 21 free throw attempts. That’s another problem for the program (64.6 percent from the charity stripe, ninth in Big Ten play).

Minnesota’s NCAA tournament at-large status is not in jeopardy tonight. But questions about its standing as a top-25 team that can tussle with America’s best now and potentially in March will linger if it loses to another ranked team Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Michigan State can achieve another victory that propels the team toward the Big Ten title as it prepares for the toughest portion of its conference slate (the Spartans will face Michigan twice, Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin in the second half of the Big Ten season). Now, the real chase for the league title begins. Let’s see if the momentum continues in East Lansing. History says that it will.

Elsewhere: Stanford interrupted Oregon’s path toward the Pac-12 crown last week. With a win at No. 7 Arizona Wednesday night, the Cardinal would earn their fourth consecutive victory in league play and serious credit as a contender in the conference. The Wildcats haven’t exactly looked like a top-10 team in weeks, so a convincing win over a hot Stanford squad would boost the program in the Pac-12 race and enhance its national perception. ... Air Force has disrupted the entire Mountain West title chase by winning five consecutive games. With a win at No. 15 New Mexico on Wednesday, Air Force would be locked in a tie for first place with New Mexico (and potentially Colorado State if the Rams win at Nevada on Wednesday night). Air Force is winning with the 3-ball (46.4 percent in conference play, first in the league), and the Lobos are certainly not invincible. The same squad that’s on top of the conference after winning its past two games scored only 34 points in a road loss to San Diego State on Jan. 26. … Indiana State followed a road win over Wichita State last weekend with an overtime loss to Drake. The Shockers have lost three in a row. So it’s tough to figure out the Missouri Valley Conference right now. Creighton is king of the league, yet the Bluejays have lost two of their past three MVC road games. So Wednesday’s matchup at Indiana State is still intriguing. … Baylor took the first game against Oklahoma State on Jan. 21 (64-54). Tonight is the rematch between the two programs in Stillwater. The Pokes are coming off a historic win at Kansas, which ended the Jayhawks’ 33-game home winning streak. But college basketball’s Davids (see NC State, La Salle, Villanova, Indiana State) have had as many challenges as its Goliaths following big wins in recent weeks. Given that trend and the result of the first game, there are certainly no guarantees for Oklahoma State.