After a strong start to Big Ten conference play at Penn State earlier this week, the Northwestern Wildcats (12-2, 1-0) will look to extend their winning streak to 10 games as they head to East Lansing to take on the Michigan State Spartans (9-5, 1-0). The Wildcats are currently riding the longest active winning streak in the conference and have gotten the attention of many basketball experts around the country with their play. A strong showing against the Spartans would only add to the excitement surrounding this team.
Northwestern hasn’t won at the Breslin Center since 2009, although they gave Michigan State all it could handle in their last trip in 2015, losing 84-77 in overtime to a Spartan team that would go on to make the Final Four. In the two teams’ most recent meeting at Welsh-Ryan Arena last season, Michigan State handled the Wildcats with ease, cruising to a 76-45 victory. Don’t pay too much attention to that scoreline, though; just three of ten starters from that game will play on Friday.
On the surface, Michigan State’s 9-5 record looks catastrophic for a team that started the season ranked No. 12 in the country. And while youth and injuries have contributed to that record, it can also be attributed to a brutal slate of matchups to start the season. The Spartans took on four top 25 teams–Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor and Duke–in less than three weeks and traveled more than 13,000 miles during that span. It was clear by the end of November that the travel and competition had taken a toll on Tom Izzo’s team; furthermore, injuries began to plague the Spartans and caused Izzo to do some shifting around with an already youthful lineup.
Similar to Northwestern, front court depth has been a major problem for Michigan State all season. The Spartans lost their two tallest players, 6-foot-9 bigs Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, to knee injuries before the start of the season and it’s questionable whether either player will be able to return at all this year. This caused Izzo to start 6-foot-7 freshman phenom Miles Bridges and 6-foot-6 sophomore Kenny Goins in the front court at the beginning of the season. Bridges shined early in the season to the tune of 16.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game despite the team’s slow start but fell victim to a high left ankle sprain that has caused him to miss the team’s last six games. On Thursday, Izzo said Bridges is getting closer to returning but is doubtful to play against Northwestern.
With Bridges out, the Spartans have had to find ways to replace the production of their best player. A lot of eyes were on the three other true freshmen that helped make up the Spartans’ No. 3 ranked recruiting class in the country in 2016. Guards Josh Langford and Cassius Winston have showed flashes of their athleticism and playmaking abilities that made them so highly touted coming out of high school, but have struggled with their consistency thus far. Langford was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star recruit and is one of the team’s better defenders, while Winston serves as a capable secondary ball handler for the Spartans who excels at distributing the ball, leading the team with 6 assists per game.
But perhaps the biggest surprise for Michigan State in Bridges’ absence has been the play of freshman forward Nick Ward. Described by Izzo as “a poor man’s Zach Randolph” with his big frame but soft touch around the rim, the 6-foot-8 Ward has averaged 18.2 points and 8.2 rebounds in the Spartans’ last six games. On Tuesday, he had one of his best performances of the year as he led the Spartans in their double digit second half comeback at Minnesota, dropping 22 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks. He’s also had games of 25 and 9 against Oakland and 24 and 10 against Oral Roberts. Ward has been MSU’s best player recently and will be a tough defensive assignment for some combination of Barret Benson, Gavin Skelly and Sanjay Lumpkin, as he is leading the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, according to KenPom.
Besides the freshmen mentioned, the Spartans return key contributors such as Goins, Tum Tum Nairn, Eron Harris and Matt McQuaid. Aside from Ward, Goins is the Spartans’ only other feasible option as a rim protector but often struggles to stay in games due to foul trouble. Nairn is one of the quickest point guards in college basketball who can play lockdown defense on opposing guards but has yet to become a consistent source of scoring for the Michigan State offense so far in his career. Alongside Nairn in the backcourt is senior Eron Harris. Like Nairn, Harris is an excellent defender who is also one of the Spartans’ best scoring options, averaging 12.8 points per game. Sophomore sharpshooter McQuaid has been cold of late, going 8-for-36 in the Spartans’ last seven games, but is capable of knocking down a shot from anywhere on the court when he gets hot, as we saw in Evanston last season when he went 5-of-8 from deep and scored 17 points as a true freshman.
Overall, this is a Michigan State team with plenty of young talent that is better than its non-conference record indicates this season. Due to injuries in the front court, the Spartans are a team that matches up very well against this year’s Northwestern roster. Expect to see Izzo spread the floor and trot out lineups featuring three, sometimes even four guards for most of the game. On paper this looks to be a very winnable game for the Wildcats, but one of the most important rules of college basketball is to never, ever underestimate a Tom Izzo-coached team and that certainly applies heading into this game.
Game time: 5 p.m. CT
TV channel: Big Ten Network
Online streaming: BTN2Go
Radio: WGN 720 AM
Betting line: MSU -2