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Against all odds, Northwestern stunned No. 10 Michigan State, and might have saved its season in the process

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This may go down as the best road win in the Collins era.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

In yesterday’s shocking two-point upset over No. 10 Michigan State, Northwestern was without Pete Nance and Elyjah Williams.

In yesterday’s shocking two-point upset over No. 10 Michigan State, Northwestern was outshot 43% to 34% by the Spartans.

In yesterday’s shocking two-point upset over No. 10 Michigan State, Northwestern finished 10-for-17 from the free throw line.

In yesterday’s shocking two-point upset over No. 10 Michigan State, Northwestern made one three-pointer in the second half after ending the first half 7-for-13 from beyond the arc. By the game’s conclusion, the ‘Cats were 8-for-26 from deep.

In yesterday’s shocking two-point upset over No. 10 Michigan State, reserve center Julius Marble II was unstoppable for the Spartans. He finished the game with 18 points and shot 7-for-7 from the floor, as well as 4-for-4 from the free throw line.

In yesterday’s shocking two-point upset over No. 10 Michigan State, Robbie Beran was called for a travel, then a foul in the final second of play, sending Marcus Bingham Jr. to the free throw line with a chance to tie the game at 64.

To put it politely, how in the hell did the ‘Cats pull this one off?

Well, it was luck. Mostly.

Hang on now for a minute, don’t get angry. I’m not talking about a four leaf clover type of luck, I’m talking about KenPom’s “luck” metric. It’s been referenced on this site before, but as a reminder, the luck metric demonstrates the difference between a team’s expected output and actual output. Coming into their game against Michigan State, the ‘Cats ranked 354th out of 358 teams in luck, signaling that their expected win percentage differed greatly from their actual win percentage. It also could have been interpreted as a sign that the Wildcats were overdue for a breakthrough.

Whether you choose to interpret it that way or not, NU’s breakthrough came in East Lansing yesterday.

“This was a really important win for us after what we’ve been through in the past four games,” head coach Chris Collins said postgame. He went on to add that he felt the team “was on the doorstep” after their four-game losing streak.

That’s entirely true for Collins and Co. They were on the doorstep. The four game losing streak is now in the past, and while it may come back to haunt them down the line — specifically those losses against Penn State and Maryland — those games cannot underscore the magnitude of this victory. It’s a huge one for the Wildcats, and it represents that despite missing a key piece and their lone NBA draft prospect, being outshot on all three levels and being dealt some questionable officiating, they can walk away from these types of games with wins.

Of course, it wasn’t just “luck”. At the end of the game, Northwestern had out-rebounded Michigan State 40-35. That’s an eye-popping stat in itself considering the Spartans average 40.4 rebounds per game, good enough for third best in the Big Ten. On top of that, the Wildcats forced 17 turnovers out of MSU, while they themselves gave the ball away just 10 times.

Down low for the ‘Cats, it was the Ryan Young show. The backup center stepped up big in the absence of Nance, posting 18 points and eight rebounds — as well as two huge and-ones — to propel Northwestern to victory. The play of Matt Nicholson can’t be understated either. He finished with five points and six rebounds in just 13 minutes of play, adding some much-needed bench depth, especially amongst the bigs.

It’s also important to touch on coaching. Collins has been criticized, many times rightfully so, for his decisions in the past. With that being said, he shuffled his lineups without hesitation and wasn’t afraid to pull the trigger on substitutions and timeouts. He did his absolute best with the depth he was given and it paid off big time. Don’t believe me? Listen to Tom Izzo then.

“Disappointed and happy for Chris Collins,” Izzo said postgame. “I mean that. He did a hell of a job in rearranging his guys. Young’s never played that many minutes in his life, and he’s probably one of the tougher kids on his team.”

Looking ahead, the next four games now hold even more meaning for the Wildcats. They play host to No. 13 Wisconsin on Tuesday, January 18, in the first conference game that students are allowed to attend at Welsh-Ryan Arena in over a year and a half. After that, Northwestern travels to West Lafayette to take on No. 7 Purdue at Mackey Arena. To round it out, the ‘Cats travel to Michigan to take on the Wolverines then finish the month by hosting No. 25 Illinois on January 29.

It’s a brutal stretch. It could be killer. These next few games may just make or break NU’s postseason chances. The win at Breslin reignited a flame that was becoming awfully faint, but the ‘Cats will need to keep their momentum over these next couple of games and hopefully steal a win over another ranked opponent to keep their hopes of March Madness alive. If that happens, the Wildcats may have a shot.