INDIANAPOLIS -- "You know," Drew Crawford said after Northwestern's 67-62 upset win over Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament, "the fact that no one really gives us a chance, that's big time motivation, too, and we like it that way. That really drives us because we know we're capable, and we're capable of being a great team."
Crawford and Northwestern face No. 22 Michigan State Friday night in the quarterfinals as they try for their second major upset in as many nights and, yet again, no one is giving Northwestern much of a chance. In two games against the Spartans this season, Northwestern has struggled to keep pace with Tom Izzo's team suffering a 14-point loss in Evanston and a 15-point defeat in East Lansing.
"Now have a chance to be able to play Michigan State," Northwestern's Chris Collins said, "which to me is the standard of excellence in this league. There's a lot of great, great programs, and that in no way, shape or form does it disrespect anyone else in our league. We've got as good a league as there is.
"But what Coach Izzo has done with his program, the kind of kids he has, the way he's won, that's a standard of excellence, and now we have a chance to rest up and come back tomorrow and compete against them and see how we can do. To me the only thing that can come out of that for our program is positive."
This season for Northwestern, the team is adamant that the focus has always been on winning, despite what many are considering a rebuilding year.
"You can have a tendency to maybe just come here to Indy, enjoy the day, play a little ball and be done with things. But that's not what my group wanted to do, and that's not who they've been," Collins said.
After Northwestern put the finishing touches on its win over Iowa, the team's focus shifted to Michigan State, Tre Demps said. While Collins often compliments his group's physical toughness and effort, Demps indicated that in the team's two losses to Michigan State, those two aspects were lacking.
"Yeah, even just waiting there, as a competitor, I started thinking about the game," said Demps, who led Northwestern with 20 points on 8-12 shooting against Iowa. "We didn't do a good job of playing defense against [Michigan State]. We felt like we scored the ball well, but we didn't fight that game. I think playing against those guys, they're very similar to Iowa. They like to push the ball up‑and‑down. They play really physical on the glass. We're going to have to have the same physicality that we had tonight."
Demps, along with Crawford, played all 40 minutes against Iowa. As a whole, Collins only played seven players against the Hawkeyes. With JerShon Cobb out for the latter part of the regular season with a broken foot, an already tight rotation has gotten even tighter, which may cost Northwestern against the relatively fresh Spartans.
"Yeah, there's no other option," Collins said. "We are who we are. The guys playing are the guys that are going to play. That's where we've got to utilize‑‑ we have a great training staff, we have great medical people. It's very important now when the game ends with hydration, with treatment, with rest, with different things you can do now. We're going to do everything we have within our power to get our guys' legs fresh and get them some rest and try to put a game plan together."
With the season on the line, rest isn't the most important factor, according to Collins. Fatigue, he said, can be overcome with intangibles and smart coaching.
"This time of year, though, a lot of it is guts, it's heart, and then it'll be on me. I'm going to have to do a good job using our timeouts, managing tempo, things of that nature, give guys maybe a rest around the timeouts if I can get a guy a minute here and a minute there. Again, it's going to be a similar formula. We've got to try to keep the game at bay, keep it at a manageable number, and give ourselves a chance in the last five, six minutes to see if we can be competitive."
Along with Demps and Crawford's heavy minutes, center Alex Olah played 38 minutes against Iowa. The sophomore has logged heavy minutes toward the back-end of conference play.
With Michigan State's Adreian Payne back healthy, Olah will have his hands full with skilled big man. Olah has struggled against Michigan State averaging just 6 points and 4 rebounds, along with 4.5 fouls per game. Payne was only healthy for one meeting against Northwestern this season and had 20 points on 6-11 shooting, along with 14 rebounds.
"I really don't know," Olah said with a laugh in response to a question about how to contain Payne. "I think we pretty much have to just guard him as a team. He's good overall: he can shoot, he can drive, he can rebound really, offensive rebound, he has great post ups. I think I just need to be physical with him, keep him out of the paint. I just need to make him drive and then the team can step in and help me... He's a great player and it's a great opportunity for me to show what I've got."
The Romanian was a bit off against Iowa as he had 5 turnovers and scored 6 points, but he said that he "felt great" physically and that he's "so pumped up" to play Michigan State.