Still in contention for a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, the 10th-ranked Michigan State Spartans prepare to host the Northwestern Wildcats at the Breslin Center on Sunday.
Since the middle of January, the schedule for the Spartans has been filled with nationally-ranked conference foes and for the most part the team has held its ground. However, MSU did have to deal with a three-game slide against the likes of Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan recently, before posting a 58-43 triumph over 22nd-ranked Wisconsin three nights ago.
The Spartans are now 12-5 in conference and still have a shot at the regular- season crown, depending on what happens between the second-ranked Hoosiers and seventh-ranked Wolverines on Sunday afternoon. The good news for Michigan State at the moment is that the team is 16-1 at home in 2012-13, sporting a 7-1 mark versus league foes.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats are next-to-last in the Big Ten standings, their 4-13 mark better than only Penn State which started off the conference slate with 14 consecutive defeats. Northwestern, which just bowed to the Nittany Lions on Thursday night at home, 66-59, has fallen in seven straight decisions and nine of the last 10 overall.
Michigan State leads the all-time series with the Wildcats by a wide 81-38 margin, posting a huge 46-8 advantage at home in East Lansing, but Northwestern won the most recent encounter 14 months ago at home by a score of 81-74.
Alex Marcotullio knocked down six 3-pointers and finished with 22 points, both of which were career highs, but still he and the Wildcats lost in a cat fight against Penn State earlier this week in Evanston. While Marcotullio was hitting on 6-of-9 shots from the floor, the rest of the starters combined to make just 8-of-30 from the field, so there was little chance of survival. The only other double-digit scorer was Reggie Hearn who tacked on 11 points, to go along with five rebounds and four assists before fouling out.
Over the course of 17 conference games, of which he has appeared in and started all but one, Hearn leads the Wildcats in scoring with 12.6 ppg, although it would be difficult to tell that if only you were focusing on his mere 27.3 percent accuracy behind the 3-point line. Jared Swopshire had been second on the unit with 10.6 ppg, but a knee injury has put him out of commission and now the program struggles along with just 55.4 ppg against the rest of the Big Ten, while giving up 66.0 ppg.
For Michigan State, it was one of the team's finest hours in terms of defense, holding the Badgers to a season-low 43 points earlier this week. Tom Izzo, who became the first Big Ten coach to win five straight against Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, watched his squad turn the 17 turnovers they forced into 23 points, more than enough to get the Spartans out to a comfortable win. From an offensive standpoint, Keith Appling tallied a game-high 19 points for the Spartans, but he shot only 1-of-7 behind the 3-point line, the team overall converting a woeful 3-of-15 out on the perimeter. Gary Harris, 1-of-4 beyond the arc, added 11 points, while Adreian Payne came up a point shy of a double-double as he cleared 11 rebounds.
As the two players who have started all 17 league outings, it only makes sense that Harris and Appling are the leading scorers in those contests with averages of 13.8 ppg and 12.3 ppg, respectively. Appling leads the group with 59 assists and has made more shots at the free-throw line (63-of-87), but still it is tough to look beyond the fact that he has shot just 36.3 percent from the floor and 24.6 percent beyond the arc now. Harris is much more reliable from long range with his 40-of-85 (.471) effort, yet the rest of the team has combined for only 50 3-pointers which make it rather easy for defenses to figure out who is more likely to attack from the perimeter these days.