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Four things to watch when Northwestern takes on Michigan State

A talented yet shaky Sparty comes to E-Town as the young ‘Cats look for another exciting win.

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NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

After a week off for final exams, Northwestern (5-4) handled the Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville Cougars by a score of 72-54. Luckily for Chris Collins’ squad, its next date is with one of the best teams in the country. Tom Izzo’s no. 15 Michigan State Spartans (7-3) came into this season regarded as a national title contender, but losses to Kentucky, Duke and an unranked Virginia Tech have limited the excitement in East Lansing. Here are some things to watch on both sides for Wednesday’s game at Welsh-Ryan Arena:

How will Ryan Young fare against another Big Ten opponent?

The redshirt first-year from New Jersey posted career highs in points, rebounds, and assists on Sunday against SIUE with 25, 12, and four. He’s the second leading scorer on the team after Pete Nance, and his post moves have certainly improved throughout non-conference play. With such a young front court featuring the likes of Robbie Beran and Jared Jones, Young has been given ample opportunities to prove that he can be the successor in production to Dererk Pardon.

In Northwestern’s Big Ten opener, it was a different story. Young was limited in the paint by Purdue’s front court, shooting 1-7 from the field for just 3 points. The Spartans don’t have nearly as much height as other Big Ten teams such as Purdue (looking at you, Matt Haarms) and do not have a true five like Young, so how he will match up against Izzo’s forwards will be worth watching. Whether or not Young can impose his will against Sparty will go a long way in determining if the Wildcats can pull off the upset.

Pete Nance returns

Young’s performance on Sunday greatly aided a Northwestern team that was without leading scorer Pete Nance. The sophomore forward was serving a one-game suspension for “failure to adhere to program standards.” His return to the lineup should provide a needed boost for a ‘Cats team still trying to find its stride on offensive. Specifically, Pat Spencer has struggled this month and has yet to prove that his athleticism can translate to Power 5 basketball. He scored 15 against SIUE and looked much more confident on the ball than he did against Boston College and Purdue, but Michigan State will provide another tough challenge for the former lacrosse star.

A banged up but resilient Sparty

Michigan State’s position as the country’s top ranked team at the beginning of the season was reinforced by a backcourt consisting of Cassius Winston, Aaron Henry and Josh Langford. Winston tragically lost his brother earlier this season and has publicly talked about his struggle with grief and its effect on his play while Josh Langford went down to a foot injury at the beginning of the season. Langford offered a phenomenal stroke from three-point land as well as elite defending.

MSU hasn’t shot the ball well from beyond the arc, hitting just seven of 33 tries against Oakland a few days ago. Tom Izzo has had to move around many parts in Langford’s absence, furthered by the lingering injury to highly touted freshman guard Rocket Watts. Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry are both averaging double figures in points, while Tillman is also grabbing 10.1 rebounds per game. Moreover, unheralded guys such as senior Kyle Ahrens and sophomore Thomas Kithier have picked up important minutes as well. Michigan State is a banged-up team at this exact moment, but, nonetheless, they pose an early challenge for a ‘Cats team in need of a big win before the New Year.

Early road woes in the B1G

Everybody in the Big Ten is 1-1 in conference play, except for Michigan State and Northwestern, at 1-0 and 0-1, respectively. How cool would it be for every single team to be 1-1? Home teams are 13-0 in conference play so far. Just in the past week, Nebraska took down Purdue, while no. 5 Maryland fell at Penn State, no. 4 Michigan lost at Illinois, and no. 3 Ohio State is no longer undefeated after a trip to Minnesota. The Spartans are certainly favorites against the Wildcats, but Tom Izzo and company shouldn't take their trip to Evanston for granted. As college basketball writer Jon Rothstein likes to say: “Anarchy? Nope. Just college basketball.”

Although students are gone for winter break, this is a marquee home game for Chris Collins’ and this young Northwestern team as they welcome a ranked team to Evanston for the first time all season.

Make sure to get your tickets on StubHub so you won’t miss Wednesday’s Big Ten home opener for Northwestern