Northwestern travels to East Lansing tonight to take on Michigan State, returning to the Breslin Center for the first time since last year's shocking upset. Tip-off is at 6 PM central on the Big Ten Network, with Tom Hamilton and Jim Jackson on the call.
Since we last saw MIchigan State (and got blown out by 21), they've won all seven of their games to take a commanding lead in the Big Ten title race, and are currently ranked #5 in both polls. Reigning Big Ten player of the year Kalin Lucas is leading the way for the Spartans, averaging a team high 15 points and 4 assists per game. He's a dangerous outside shooter at 38% from three, and he's one of the most clutch shooters in the conference, hitting the winning shot in Michigan State's last two wins at Minnesota and Michigan.
As well as Lucas has been playing, senior forward Raymar Morgan might be playing better. Morgan is a very talented player who at times has failed to live up the hype, but over the last 4 games he's been outstanding, averaging 17 points a game while shooting 77% from the field. His athleticism will make him difficult for Northwestern to guard inside.The 'Cats will also have to handle Spartan 6th man extraordinaire Draymond Green on the interior. Green is a bruising 6'6". 235 pounds and leads Michigan State in rebounding at 8 per game. He's also a fantastic passer for a big man at 3 assists per game, and shoots 58% from the field. The third Spartans big man to see significant minutes in sophomore Delvon Roe, who averages 7 points and 6 rebounds per game.
Joining Lucas in the backcourt are Durrell Summers, Chris Allen and Korie Lucious. Summers is a fantastic athlete capable of getting hot in taking over games, much like he did in Evanston earlier this month when he had 17 points in just 14 minutes. Allen is probably the most dangerous 3-point shooter on Michigan State, at 38% from behind the arc. Last year in Northwestern's win at Michigan State, Allen had probably the worst game of his career, shooting 1 for 11 from the field with 7 turnovers, so he'll be out for some revenge. Lucious is the backup point guard and passes the ball well at 3.7 assists per game, and can get hit the outside shot as well (35% on threes).
Looking at the team stats, there aren't too many weaknesses for Michigan State. On offense they not only shoot a high percentage (53% on 2-point field goals) but they rebound over 40% of their misses. Their one Achilles heel is turnovers, as the Spartans rank 9th in the conference in turnovers per possession, ahead of only Iowa and Indiana. As these numbers show, when they don't the ball over Michigan State is extremely efficient, so it will be up to Northwestern to force a lot of turnovers tonight. On defense, Michigan State holds opponents to low shooting percentages (30% on threes, 44% on twos), and they rebound very well, so it won't be easy for Northwestern.
Some keys for Northwestern:
Transition defense: I believe this will be the key to the game. When these two met in Evanston, Northwestern did a horrendous job of this and allowed a lot of easy baskets. In order to limit transition, I think the 'Cats will have to be less aggressive on the offensive glass and instead focus on getting back on defense. In the last meeting NU had 11 offensive rebounds, but that was more than offset by all the layups and dunks Michigan State had in transition. Northwestern is much better defensively in the halfcourt, so they need to slow down the pace and force the Spartans to execute vs the zone. I saw most of Michigan State's last game against Michigan, the Spartans had a lot of trouble at times vs. Michigan's zone defenses.
Win the turnover battle by a lot: As noted earlier, Michigan State is deadly on offense when they don't turn the ball over. In last season's upset, turnovers were hugely in Northwestern's favor (18 to 7). The Spartans have been turnover prone at times, and Northwestern has for the most part done a good job of taking care of the ball this season, so hope for both those trends to continue tonight.
Outside shooting: Northwestern has very little chance tonight if they don't hit a lot of 3-pointers. It won't be easy to score inside, so scoring from the perimeter will be the 'Cats best chance. Last season at the Breslin Center, it seemed like every time Michigan State made a run in the second half, someone for Northwestern stepped up and hit a big three to quiet the crowd. It will take a similar performance tonight for the 'Cats to pull off another upset.
Northwestern is a 13.5 point underdog tonight, which seems too low as they were 12 point dogs at Minnesota and Michigan State would figure to be a lot more than 1.5 points better than Minnesota. Either way, I'm fully aware that I just drank about a gallon of the NU purple Kool-Aid, but I think this will be a close game. I expect Northwestern to come out angry after their tough loss at Minnesota on Tuesday, and this feels like a bit of a trap game for Michigan State. Coming off two straight close road wins, the second over their in-state rival in dramatic fashion, on paper tonight's game should be a blowout for Michigan State at home, especially given how easily they handled Northwestern in Evanston. I think the Northwestern zone will force a lot of turnovers, and that the 'Cats hot 3-point shooting will carry over from the game versus Minnesota. Still, Michigan State has too much talent and Kalin Lucas is such a clutch player that the Spartans will pull this one out.
Michigan State 66, Northwestern 61
NU will give the Spartans all they can handle, but in the end it won't quite be enough. At the very least, NU will take some momentum into the much softer second half of their Big Ten schedule. Of course, it's possible I'm only thinking this game will be close because of the highlight video below. Who knows how long it will be until Northwestern wins at the Breslin Center again, might as well enjoy that game as much as possible.
I'll see everyone tonight for the game thread, until then check out The Only Colors' preview of tonight's game. There are a lot of excellent Big Ten basketball blogs on SBNation, but Michigan State's gets my vote for the best of the bunch, they do a fantastic job.