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Does Michigan State's ailing frontcourt give Northwestern a shot to repeat history?

If you don’t know what happened the last time Michigan State played at Northwestern, watch the video posted above this sentence. If you want to know whether the Wildcats have a chance to make what happened in that video happen again when the No. 6 Spartans return to Welsh-Ryan Arena Wednesday night, keep reading.

I’ll just go right ahead and say it: this is a huge mismatch. Michigan State is ranked 10th Ken Pomeroy’s team rankings; Northwestern is ranked 156th. Michigan State is scoring 1.11 points per trip and giving up 0.93 in conference play. Northwestern is scoring 0.86 and giving up 1.13. Michigan State is….You get the point. Sparty’s just better, period.

The biggest reason Northwestern could* beat the Spartans Wednesday night doesn’t have to do with anything the Wildcats can control.

Preseason All-Big Ten Spartans forward Adreian Payne is dealing with a sprained foot that caused him to miss his team’s win over Minnesota on Saturday. When speaking with reporters on Monday, coach Tom Izzo did not sound like he expected Payne to play against the Wildcats.

“We're going to make it so (Payne's foot) is 100 percent," Izzo said. "If we don't have to play him we're going to do like Gary Harris. If he doesn't play this week or the next week, we got to get him to 100 percent. I got to look at the big picture for him and the big picture for us.

"If it's going to linger because of playing, which I don't know if that's positive or not yet, we're going to definitely err on the side of getting him healthy."

Another of the Spartans’ frontcourt players, junior forward Branden Dawson, might not be at 100 percent Wednesday. Izzo told reporters Monday that Dawson, who played the last two games with a diminished energy level, is questionable due to a virus.

Dawson and Payne are two of Michigan State’s best players. They also anchor Michigan State’s frontcourt. Northwestern, a team with only one traditional big man, is typically short-handed in that area.

The Spartans proved Saturday that they can win without Payne and Dawson. Payne didn’t play the entire game, while Dawson was benched in the second half for Kenny Kaminski. Still, Michigan State could easily beat Northwestern without its two best forwards. But If either player is unable to suit up, Northwestern will be playing at less of a frontcourt disadvantage than it would have otherwise been.

The Beast would be able to go to work on the low block without having to worry about Dawson swatting his shot into the third row. Northwestern would also be better-equipped to battle Michigan State for rebounds. Tom Izzo’s team has grabbed 32.1 percent (5th in the conference) of its misses in Big Ten play and allowed league opponents to grab 25.9 percent (4th). Northwestern ranks 12th and 8th, respectively, in those categories.

It might even give Northwestern the offensive balance it has lacked for most of the season. If Olah is able to consistently score against the Spartans on the interior, Northwestern’s shooters might have more opportunities to spot-up and get clean looks on the wing.

Northwestern could further level the frontcourt battle by trotting out the same big lineup – JerShon Cobb (6-5), Kale Abrahamson (6-7), Drew Crawford (6-5), Sanjay Lumpki (6-7) and Alex Olah (7-foot) – it used against Illinois on Sunday.

This is all speculative talk. Payne and Dawson could well play, and if they do, Northwestern’s probability of winning will plummet from the 14% Pomeroy currently projects to Nikola Cerina’s three-point field goal percentage. Or something close to that.

With Payne and Dawson available, Northwestern’s best strategy involves making a call to Davide Curletti. No explanation needed.

*I say “could” with great caution. “Could,” as in, only slightly more affirming than “will not.”