After a brutal road performance at Indiana on Saturday, Northwestern (15-6 overall, 3-5 Big Ten) will look to end its three-game losing streak on Thursday when it plays host to No. 12 Michigan State Spartans (17-4, 4-4).
The Wildcats are currently in the middle of their toughest stretch of the season, which includes four consecutive games against the four highest-ranked teams in the Big Ten. So far, Northwestern is 0-2 in those games, falling last week to Maryland and Indiana (who are ranked No. 8 and No. 19 respectively in the most recent AP Poll).
With postseason hopes now in question, the Wildcats' resumé is still in desperate need of a high profile win, especially one against a Top 25 team. Thursday's game against the No. 12 ranked Spartans gives the Wildcats an opportunity to earn such a win, however the matchup poses many potential problems for Northwestern.
Coming off a Final Four run last season, Michigan State started the season fast, going undefeated in non conference play and jumped out to a perfect 13-0 record for the best start in school history. Coach Tom Izzo's team held the No. 1 ranking for four consecutive weeks before senior Denzel Valentine went down with a knee injury, subsequently losing its first conference game against Iowa.
Michigan State enters Thursday's game coming off one of its most impressive, and perhaps most crucial, win of the season after defeating Maryland 74-65 in East Lansing on Saturday. That win killed a three-game losing streak of its own that included back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Nebraska, both of whom were unranked. Valentine has returned from a minor arthroscopic surgery on the left knee that sidelined him for four games and is picking up right where he left off, averaging 18 points per game since his return, as well as 7.2 rebounds and 5.6 assists in his five games back.
Valentine has been widely viewed as one of the very best players in college basketball this season. KenPom currently has him ranked No. 4 in its player of the year standings and many others have him on a short list of candidates for Big Ten Player of the Year. The 6-foot-5 senior guard has been the leader of this Michigan State team all season and has embraced the "do-it-all" role for the Spartans as he consistently stuffs the stat sheet game after game. He has recorded two triple-doubles already this season, becoming one of four Spartan players to ever accomplish such a feat (two of those other players were Magic Johnson and Draymond Green). Despite his height and robust frame, Valentine still spends time playing point guard, where he can distribute the ball to the Spartans' other scoring threats but also create shots off the dribble. He is one of the team's better defenders and has proven to be capable of guarding the opponent's best player.
Valentine has been helped this year by the strong play of guards Bryn Forbes and Eron Harris. Forbes, who is a former high school teammate of Valentine, is averaging 13.6 points per game and is a deadly perimeter threat, currently shooting 46% from three-point range and has made 58 on the year, the second most in the Big Ten (Valentine is fourth with 52). Harris, a junior who played previously at West Virginia, has seen his role expand over the course of his first season at Michigan State after the Spartan's starting point guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn was sidelined with a foot injury two weeks ago. Although Nairn is a strong defensive option for the Spartans, his offensive game has struggled during his time in East Lansing and in his absence, Harris has seen his minutes increase and is averaging 11.6 points per game in the three games Nairn has missed.
The combination of Valentine, Forbes and Harris will pose great challenges to Northwestern's perimeter defense, which left many shooters open all day long against Indiana on Saturday.
In the front court, the Spartans have two legitimate scoring options down low that are able to post up defenders and finish with authority if they are left unaccounted for. Senior Matt Costello is currently averaging 9.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game this season. Costello scored 15 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in the Spartans win over Maryland, despite having twisted his ankle just three days prior to the game. Costello was limited in practice earlier this week, but said on Monday in an interview with the Detroit Free Press that he will play in Thursday's game.
Freshman Deyonta Davis will also play a key role in Michigan State's front court. The 6-foot-10 true freshman was a McDonald's All-American in 2015 and the No. 7 rated power forward in last year's recruiting class, per 247sports. With a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Davis is a proven shot blocker, currently leading the team with 1.9 blocks per game, but at times has struggled defending the low post. On offense, Davis is very efficient around the rim (he's currently ranked second in the Big Ten with a 63.6 field goal percentage) and frequently is able capitalize on defensive lapses from his opponents. Northwestern has proven in previous games that its "Chameleon" zone defense can sometimes lead to players being unaccounted for down low, which often results in an easy bucket. Low post defenders such as Dererk Pardon, Alex Olah and Joey van Zegeren will need to make sure they're keeping an eye on Davis at all times on Thursday in order to prevent him from sneaking open and getting an easy dunk or grabbing offensive rebound, which Izzo's teams have become known for over the years.
In his Monday press conference, Izzo acknowledged the Wildcats' three-game losing streak and compared it to the Spartans' recent losing streak that was just snapped, saying that Northwestern could come out on Thursday with a similar fire that his team played with against Maryland on Saturday.
"They kind of are like we were last week, their back is to the wall, said Izzo. "I think we're going to get a hungry, angry team."
On Tuesday, Chris Collins stressed the importance of his team matching Michigan State's toughness before they start to focus on anything else heading into Thursday.
"Coach Izzo is one of the best around and he gets his guys to play at a really high level," said Collins. "They're very disciplined, they're going to go to the glass hard, they're going to run their offense tough, they're going to push the ball. You have to match that before you even talk about the strategy."