EVANSTON — At first it was Denzel Valentine.
Then it was everyone else. It came fast, it came furious and it never relented as No. 12 Michigan State (18-4, 5-4 Big Ten) walked all over Northwestern (15-7, 3-6) in a 76-45 victory Thursday night.
Coming into the game, the Spartans had four players shooting over 36 percent from three: Valentine (40.6 percent), Bryn Forbes (46 percent), Eron Harris (40 percent) and Matt McQuaid (36.1 percent). And Michigan State did nothing to surprise Northwestern. In fact, before Tom Izzo pulled his top players with about five minutes left in the game, those were the only four Spartans to even attempt a three. Combined, they knocked down 15 threes by game's end.
"If you make a shot, it takes away all the evils," Izzo said, "and we made a lot of shots."
Valentine got it going in the first half, during which he was 4-of-4. Forbes and McQuaid also hit both of their three-point attempts in the opening period. Harris was a dismal, by Michigan State's standards, 1-of-4 shooting in the first 20 minutes. By halftime, the Spartans had jumped out to a 36-24 lead and as the game moved into the second half, it quickly got out of hand.
For the second-straight game, Northwestern's defense was torched by a superior team. If you thought the Wildcats' 89-57 loss at Indiana on Saturday was a porous display of defense combined with a lethal shooting effort, that 46.4-percent performance from deep the Hoosiers put on Northwestern wasn't even close to the damage Tom Izzo's team inflicted. For the game, the Spartans scored 1.19 points per possession.
"We have to do a better job running guys off the three-point line, especially when they're hot like that," Northwestern head man Chris Collins remarked after the game.
"But personally," he added, "this game was not lost on the defense end."
Instead, Collins opted for a refrain consistent with what this team has showed over the past two weeks and for the vast majority of Big Ten play.
"I could sit up here for an hour and we could talk about a lot of things, but if you can't put the ball in the basket, you're not going to win," he said, exasperated.
The issue is, the same shots that Northwestern got against Sacred Heart or Chicago State, for example, are not nearly as open now. Instead of a 6-foot-6 center rising to block a shot, it's Deyonta Davis, a 6-foot-10 freshman with a much longer wingspan who swatted 6 Northwestern shots. Instead of Aaron Falzon getting the chance to set his feet on an open three, he has to release his shot a beat earlier with Denzel Valentine racing behind him.
In Big Ten play, those open shots become less open and those driving lanes get closed off quicker. It becomes a game dependent on playmaking and individual execution. There are few times when attempting to out-scheme an opponent finishes with a conference win.
"They got 26 open threes and made 16... we got 23 and made 4," Collins exclaimed incredulously.
There's a reason that Michigan State shot so well from beyond the arc while the Wildcats struggled that goes beyond the clichéd "we missed shots and they made shots" narrative. Michigan State had better shooters shooting those threes. Northwestern's best and most used perimeter players — Bryant McIntosh, Tre Demps and Aaron Falzon — shot a combined 9 of 28 from the field and 4 of 18 from three.
After a stellar nonconference run, Northwestern has shot just 26.3 percent from three in Big Ten play. The Wildcats have attempted 190 three-point shots and have made just 50 of them. At home, Northwestern's been even worse. In its five home guys so far in Big Ten play (Northwestern is 1-4 in those games), the team has shot 19 of 106 from distance, good enough for 17.9 percent.
Where does coincidence turn into a pattern and a pattern turn into a trend? Collins is convinced his team hasn't reached those points yet.
But, he did admit the shooting woes have damaged other parts of his team. "It wears on you and other parts of your game go south," he said, specifically pointing to the Wildcats' second-half defensive play.
While disappointed in the loss and margin of defeat, Collins was quick to point out who Northwestern has played over the past week. The Wildcats are in the midst of a stretch the program has encountered just a handful of times in its history: playing four Top 25 teams in a row in conference play. Three of them, in this stretch, are on the road.
"Everyone sensationalizes everything. We get blown out by two top-20 teams," he said before adding that his team was going to move on and prepare for No. 3 Iowa on Sunday.
Last year, Northwestern lost its 10th game in a row in a 68-44 home blowout against the Spartans. Days later, the Wildcats played Iowa on a Sunday and beat the Hawkeyes 66-61 in overtime, beginning a run of five wins in six contests.
Collins, despite the team's current four-game skid, is confident his team can lift itself out of its rut.
"Confidence can turn in a heartbeat too if you have a good performance."