East Lansing, MI (SportsNetwork.com) - Big Ten Conference rivals square off at the Breslin Center tonight, as the Northwestern Wildcats come calling on the ninth-ranked Michigan State Spartans.
Northwestern is an even 12-12 on the season, but sits a game below .500 in conference play (5-6). The Wildcats recently had a modest two-game win streak stopped by the visiting Nebraska Cornhuskers last weekend, as the hosts fell in a 53-49 final. NU is 4-4 in true road games, but 4-6 outside of Evanston all told when you factor in a pair of neutral-site affairs.
Michigan State has been one of the top teams not only in the Big Ten, but the country as well this season. Tom Izzo's club has logged a 20-4 mark, which includes a 9-2 league ledger. The Spartans have however, fallen in two of their last three and three of their last five, the most recent of which being a 60-58 setback at Wisconsin last Sunday. MSU is 10-2 at home this season.
These two teams met on NU's home court on Jan 15, with the Spartans claiming a 54-40 win to push their lead in the all-time series to 83-38. Michigan State has won six of the last seven, and 14 of the last 16 meetings overall.
Strong defensive play has been the reason Northwestern is even .500 on the season, as the team allows just 62.8 ppg behind typical shooting efforts of .403 overall and .299 from 3-point range. It's a good thing too, as the Wildcats are clearly overmatched at the other end, netting a mere 60.8 ppg in hitting only 39.8 percent of their total shots, which includes a 30.5 percent showing from beyond the arc. The team features three double-digit scorers in Drew Crawford (16.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg), JerShon Cobb (11.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and Tre Demps (10.5 ppg), the latter of whom comes off the bench in each game. NU is in the red in both rebounding (-3.0) and turnover (-0.8) margin.
Despite another outstanding defensive effort in which they allowed the visiting Cornhuskers just 16 first-half points and held them to 40.4 percent field goal efficiency for the game, the Wildcats lost yet again. Cobb scored 14 points and Crawford had 13, but only four others scored at all, as the home team shot just 37 percent from the floor, missing 14 of its 22 3-point tries along the way.
Michigan State is clearly the better of these two teams, as it has significant advantages in every statistical category. The Spartans are putting up 77.7 ppg thanks to shooting performances that come in at .468 overall and .380 from beyond the arc. The team's defensive effort allows for just 64.8 ppg, with foes shooting a mere 38.6 percent from the floor and 31.8 percent from downtown. Add positive differentials in both rebounding (+4.5) and turnovers (+2.3), and it's not difficult to see who is the favorite in this particular matchup. MSU boasts four double-digit scorers, with Gary Harris leading the way with his 17.6 ppg. The team recently welcomed back skilled big man Adreian Payne (16.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg) from a foot injury, and Keith Appling (15.0 ppg, 4.9 apg) is the guy who keeps the whole thing moving along, although he has missed the last two games with a wrist injury. Branden Dawson (10.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg) continues to be sidelined with a broken hand.
Poor shooting was the culprit in Michigan State's recent loss to Wisconsin, as the team connected on only 39.3 percent of its field goal attempts, which included a paltry 5-of-20 showing from 3-point range. Harris had perhaps the worst outing one can imagine, as he went just 3-of-20 from the field to finish with six points. Payne, who went over the 1,000-point mark in the contest, certainly can't be blamed for the setback, as he tallied a game-high 24 points by going 9-of-16 from the floor. He did have six of the team's 11 turnovers, but Travis Trice was the only other Spartan to reach double digits as he chipped in 13 points, the bulk of which came on three treys. MSU was outscored at the foul line, 13-5.