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Michigan State 85, Northwestern 70: Rapid Reaction

Northwestern wasn't expected to beat Michigan State; and it didn't, falling to Sparty 85-70. But the manner in which they did so is a bit worrying. Here are three reactions to Thursday's loss:

-       Unexpected Start – The pre-game narrative was that Northwestern had to keep the score down and the pace down to remain within shouting distance of the Spartans. The first 12 minutes of this game, however, made a mockery of that statement. Northwestern hung right with Michigan State, matching them two for two and three for three. At the 8-minute mark of the first half, NU trailed by just one point, 23-22.

But that couldn’t, and wouldn’t, last. It was just a matter of time before Michigan State began to pull away; and eventually, they did just that. But the two significant problems for Northwestern that allowed MSU to distance themselves were a little unexpected…

-       Rebounding – Coming into Thursday’s game, Northwestern’s defensive rebounding percentage was 71.3 percent, good for 58th in the country. In the first half against the Spartans though, it was 55 percent, and at the game’s conclusion, it was 58.1 percent. To put that in perspective, that’s worse than the overall season defensive rebounding percentage of all 351 Division I teams.

A major factor in the Spartans’ dominance on the glass was Adreian Payne, who finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds. Alex Olah got bullied by the senior center, and couldn’t handle his physicality or his athleticism. Nor could anybody else in purple, as Northwestern’s team rebounding failed them for the first time in a while – even when Tom Izzo sent the walk-ons onto the court.

-       Defense – Supposedly Northwestern’s identity, the Wildcat’s had risen into the top 10 in the entire nation in adjusted defensive efficiency in recent weeks. Heading into Thursday, they ranked eighth, which was astronomically high compared to expectations from earlier in the season.

But against Sparty, everything seemed to fall apart. First, the stats: Michigan State’s offensive efficiency on the night was 142.6, over 50 points higher than the season average of NU opponents. MSU shot 11-21 (52 percent) from beyond the arc, and its effective field goal percentage was 62.5 percent.

However, more worrying was the way in which these stats came about. Northwestern’s defense, more often than not, looked discombobulated. In past games, they were scrambling around the court in a good way; on Thursday, they were doing so in a bad way. The Wildcats tried to deal with Payne by running double teams at him, but their recoveries were far too slow, and they were sluggish closing out on shooters. Additionally, on numerous occasions, the Wildcats were confused by some of the Spartans’ screening action. Their communication wasn’t as good as it has been recently.

A portion of MSU’s 85-point output has to be credited to the Spartans’ hot outside shooting, their general talent, and the offensive sets they run. Despite the injuries, Izzo still has one of the top groups of players in the Big Ten. But Chris Collins won’t be happy with the way his team played defense Thursday, especially after the remarkable strides they’ve made in that department over the past month.