by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
The past few weeks have been a truly unsettling time for Northwestern basketball. The mass of injury issues would have been bad enough. Seven consecutive losses, the worst coming Thursday on Senior night to Penn State, hammered home the dour circumstances. This season has brought its ups and downs (ok, mostly downs), twists and turns, bright spots and frustrations, and now, at the end of it all, Northwestern gets to end its run by being thrown into the Breslin Center wood chipper, where – let’s be honest – barring a complete breakdown from Michigan State, and an incredibly hot shooting performance from NU, the Wildcats will finish their regular season on an eight-game losing streak. If you’re looking for a sign (Something! Anything!) to lighten up the spirits in advance of the Big Ten Tournament, East Lansing has not been known to yield friendly outcomes to visiting teams over the years. This one could get ugly.
Players to watch
Keith Appling (junior, guard)
You can pick nits and try to identify minor flaws and weak points, and over the last couple weeks, Keith Appling would have been your answer. In three games leading up to Thursday night’s win over Wisconsin, Appling never crossed the double-digit point barrier, got mangled into a 38 offensive rating peformance by Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft and committed a game-deciding turnover in the final minute at Michigan. Michigan State lost all three games. When Appling finally broke out of his slump, MSU throttled the Badgers into 0.68 points per trip in a 15-point rout, and Appling played one of his best games of the season. It is too simplistic to place direct causation on Appling’s offensive success and MSU’s win total, but it can’t hurt when an immensely-talented scoring guard is at his best, driving and penetrating and finishing at will. That’s what MSU can reasonably expect from Appling Sunday, and that – needless to say – is not a comforting development for Northwestern’s backcourt defense.
Branden Dawson (sophomore, forward)
Last NFL season, Adrian Peterson did something insane, something no level of medical analysis could have reasonably predicted. He streamlined a customarily long and arduous rehabilitation process and not only started all 17 games of the following season, but came within nine yards of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record. Lo and behold, college basketball has its own medical wonder. Dawson’s ACL tear happened last March, and he too, blasted through rehab in time for the first game of the season. His offensive numbers have dipped from last year, but hey, not everyone’s Adrian Peterson, right? Anyway, Dawson remains an athletic force and a brutally tough matchup on the boards. His rapid return, albeit considerably less bandied about, is a feat in itself, and it adds to the Spartans’ already deep and imposing backcourt.
Derrick Nix (senior, forward)
The best thing MSU has going for it this season – and, come to think of it, in most recent seasons under Tom Izzo – is a really strong, physical, rebound-focused frontcourt. The Spartans batter pretty much every team they play on the low block, and Nix usually puts in his fair share of interior brutality – at 6’9’’, 270 pounds, he has the ability to make posting up, or just living in the painted area in general, a 40-minute nightmare. But Nix isn’t just big. He’s also a deft finisher in tight spaces and an effective rebounder. And this year, Nix is finally starting to put everything together – both on and off (hopefully) the court. Northwestern’s frontcourt hasn’t run into anything like Nix all season, and thankfully so. His presence could be a rude awakening for the Wildcats’ young forwards.
Key Matchup: Reggie Hearn vs. Keith Appling
The caveat for the “key matchup” segment is always the same: Northwestern plays a bunch of 1-3-1 zone defense, so the whole one-on-one concept doesn’t really apply in any extended context. But holding down Appling may require special attention, and who better to provide a one-man clampdown effort than Hearn. The Spartans don’t rely on Appling’s perimeter scoring as much as they do an equitable point distribution from a variety of different players, but as I wrote in the above section, when Appling scores, MSU’s offense churns and opposing defenses are left scratching their heads trying to figure out how to stop a balanced inside-out attack. Maybe Hearn can, I don’t know, get a few ball deflections here and there, maybe a steal or two. The little things are what counts.
Prediction: Michigan State 70, Northwestern 48
This doesn’t need much explanation. Michigan State is playing for a piece of the Big Ten title and a favorable seed in both the conference and NCAA Tournaments. Those three objectives outweigh whatever Northwestern has on its plate at the end of a dismal season. The Wildcats are aiming for much more modest rewards. An inspiring effort and a competitive game would be nice – especially with the speculation surrounding head coach Bill Carmody’s job status – but winning this game is just too much to ask. My best advice when watching this Sunday: pay attention less to the final outcome and more what your eyes tell you – the effort, passion, desire and execution. In their current depleted, dejected, run down state, the Wildcats can at least finish the season knowing they brought forth their very best, that the enormously difficult task at hand didn’t suppress every last bit of competitive desire, that they made Michigan State work for 40 minutes. Northwestern isn’t in a point where beating Final Four contenders like MSU is a reasonable goal. And that’s not what anyone should be expecting going into Sunday’s matchup. Underneath all the talent and depth and momentum advantages, Northwestern’s will to challenge and claw and fight is what I’ll be looking for.