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How significant is Northwestern men’s basketball’s game against Michigan State?

The Wildcats have much to prove to the rest of the nation this Sunday.

NCAA Basketball: Jackson State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Peering down from the very last row of Welsh-Ryan Arena’s student section bleachers, my mood could only be described as pure elation, even in spite of my violent case of food poisoning. After all, Northwestern was mere seconds away from knocking off No. 1 Purdue for the second straight season. In the week leading up to the game, the general consensus around campus was that there was a slim chance, if any, that there would be a repeat of that legendary showing. Northwestern no longer boasted Chase Audige in its lineup. Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith were eons better for Purdue this year than they were as freshmen. And, well, Zach Edey was Zach Edey.

Forty-five minutes of basketball later, the final buzzer blared as hundreds of students donning black eagerly stormed the court to celebrate Northwestern’s improbable 92-88 victory. As I hopped the fence and ran to join the sea of black, I could not help but think to myself that this Northwestern squad would be a legitimate contender in March. The team got off to a shaky start to the season, struggling against teams like Binghamton and even losing in ugly fashion to Mississippi State. However, none of those early hiccups mattered anymore. Northwestern just proved it could hang in there with anybody. And, with a win over the best team in the nation, who was realistically stopping the ‘Cats?

Enter Chicago State.

Since dethroning the Boilermakers, Northwestern has failed to consistently compete at as high a level as it did in that game. The horrendous loss to Chicago State, which was previously 0-64 all time against Big Ten teams, has to rank up there among the worst losses the program has ever suffered. Additionally, the Wildcats looked shaky in narrow wins over DePaul and Jackson State. Most recently, however, in a game in which Northwestern tried to assuage any concerns about its legitimacy going forward, it was left in shambles as Illinois completed a 96-66 rout despite missing star guard Terrance Shannon Jr.

The last month has generally been one to forget for Northwestern, and while it’s certainly not time to hit any panic buttons just yet, the ‘Cats need to get their season back on track over the next few games to ensure fans have something to look forward to in March. On Sunday, the Wildcats will have an opportunity to do just that when Michigan State travels to Welsh-Ryan Arena for a much-anticipated matchup.

A victory will not come easily; the Spartans feature some talented players like senior guard Tyson Walker, who is currently averaging over 20 points per game. Jaden Akins and A.J. Hoggard are also crucial pieces to a Michigan State team that began the season ranked No. 4.

However, despite heating up as of late, the Spartans have had their own issues throughout the season. At 9-5, they have fallen well short of the lofty expectations set for them. Most of their losses have been delivered by stronger teams, including Duke, Arizona and Wisconsin, but preseason analysis had most people thinking that they would hold their own against these formidable foes. Much like Northwestern, MSU is trying to figure out what went wrong as it prepares to salvage its campaign.

And, given Michigan State’s vulnerability, there is little reason as to why it is not in the cards for Northwestern to emerge victorious. A victory would undoubtedly be hard-fought and would likely come down to the final minutes, but a Chris Collins win over Tom Izzo on Sunday would be extremely significant for two reasons.

First, beating Michigan State would give Northwestern an abundant deal of momentum and confidence as it heads into several key conference matchups. Since early December, NU has failed to gain any long-term traction and rack up several consecutive victories. That period included two forgettable losses that dealt blows to the team’s confidence level.

Outplaying the Spartans on Sunday would allow for Wildcats basketball to once again trend upward after gradually spiraling downward for the last few weeks. Furthermore, Northwestern’s self-esteem would increase, which would mentally prepare the ‘Cats as they get ready for a heap of challenging Big Ten opponents like Wisconsin, Ohio State and rematches against Illinois and Purdue.

Second, a win over the Spartans would solidify Northwestern as a worthy adversary not only within the Big Ten, but also among the rest of the country. As it stands right now, NU’s only win against a true contender came against Purdue. With just one impressive victory on the resume, it is easy to discount the upset as simply a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence for the Wildcats, who have not replicated that high-quality play since Dec. 1. Critics can point to that win as a fluke and argue that the Wildcats are not built to compete with the biggest names in college basketball.

Beating MSU would leave scant room for that argument to remain relevant. With two wins against Big Ten powerhouses, Northwestern’s victories would no longer be a product of good fortune. Instead, they would serve as concrete evidence that Northwestern is, and deserves to be a squad to monitor. The shaky start to the year could be looked back on as just that — a shaky start.

The Wildcats would officially cement themselves in the upper echelon of the Big Ten as they continue their slate of conference play. More than that, however, they would prove their mettle to all of college basketball in their quest to return to March Madness. The coming months could be bright for Northwestern basketball, but much hinges on the outcome of Sunday’s matchup.