Evanston, IL (SportsNetwork.com) - A pair of teams at near opposite ends of the Big Ten Conference standings get together on Wednesday night, as the fourth-ranked Michigan State Spartans take on the Northwestern Wildcats at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Michigan State has been just about perfect this season, logging a 15-1 overall record, which includes a 4-0 mark in conference play. The Spartans' lone setback took place at home against North Carolina back on Dec. 4, and since that time the team has run off eight straight victories. Things have been a little tighter than usual of late however, as MSU has had to go to overtime to take down both Ohio State (72-68) and Minnesota (87-75) in its last two outings.
Northwestern comes in sporting an 8-9 overall record, and the team recently notched its first Big Ten win of the season by slipping past intrastate rival Illinois on Sunday, 49-43. That victory put the brakes on a four-game slide while also improving the Wildcats' home mark to 7-3. With only four wins since Thanksgiving, it's imperative that the team put forth quality showings from here on out as new head coach Chris Collins continues to build for the future.
Michigan State owns a commanding 82-38 lead in the all-time series with Northwestern, and the Spartans have won five of the last six, and 13 of the last 15 meetings overall.
Michigan State continues to excel at both ends of the court, averaging a robust 81.9 ppg thanks 48.4 percent field goal efficiency, which includes a 40.5 percent showing from 3-point land. The team features four double-digit scorers, led by Gary Harris with 17.8 ppg. Keith Appling (16.4 ppg, 4.6 apg, 3.5 rpg), Adreian Payne (16.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and Branden Dawson (10.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg) round out the top performers for the Spartans, who allow just 65.4 ppg on typical shooting efforts of .381 overall and .317 from beyond the arc. MSU also owns favorable margins in both rebounds (+5.9) and turnovers (+2.6).
Appling didn't have the best shooting game in the win over Minnesota, going just 4-of-10 from the field, but he converted 15-of-16 free throws on his way to 24 points, while fellow guard Gary Harris was also effective at the stripe (8-of-11), making up for his poor 5-of-16 showing from the floor, as he finished with 19 points. Dawson and Denzel Valentine grabbed 10 rebounds apiece for the Spartans, who logged a 44-32 advantage on the boards, as well as claiming a 32-19 edge in points from the foul line.
Northwestern's biggest issues this season have been at the offensive end of the court, as the team averages just 63.7 ppg in hitting only 40.5 percent of its total shots, which includes a 31.1 percent performance from beyond the arc. The team's defensive effort has been much better, with foes netting a mere 65.2 ppg while connecting on 42.1 percent from the field, including 31.3 percent from downtown. The Wildcats are in the red in both rebounding (-2.2) and turnovers (-1.0), and they boast only two double-digit scorers in Drew Crawford (15.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and JerShon Cobb (11.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg), although Tre Demps and Alex Olah are close to joining the ranks as they produce 9.9 and 9.1 ppg, respectively.
Crawford hit for 13 points, while Cobb and Demps chipped in with 11 each, all of which were needed as the Wildcats stood tall in a tough defensive battle with Illinois. Northwestern shot just 37.2 percent from the field, while knocking down only 10-of-17 free throws, but it held the Fighting Illini to only 28.1 percent field goal efficiency, which included a dismal 4-of-19 showing from 3-point land (.211). Illinois was only 3-of-6 at the foul line.