Evanston, Ill. — Michigan State used its ninth starting lineup in the last 12 games on Wednesday at Northwestern. Fortunately for the Spartans, it didn’t keep them from getting their 16th victory in 17 games.
On a night the 3-point shooting was off — way off — and Adreian Payne was once again sidelined with a sprained right foot, No. 4 Michigan State didn’t need anything flashy.
Instead, it got just enough as Gary Harris, who was 0-for-6 from 3-point range, scored 14 points and grabbed six rebounds and Keith Appling added 11 points and four assists to lead Michigan State to a 54-40 victory over Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Wednesday.
“We have a good team, we’re just not playing really good right now,” coach Tom Izzo said. “(It’s) for a variety of reasons and some if it is I gotta start figuring out it is what it is. We have to find a way not to change the lineup every day, but it’s hard when guys aren’t practicing. So we just have to find a way to get better.”
The Spartans (16-1, 5-0 Big Ten) matched their best start, pulling even with the 1930-31 team and the 2000-01 team that reached the Final Four.
And as impressive as the record is, just don’t try to convince the Spartans they are as good as those numbers would indicate.
“No, not at all,” Harris said when asked if he felt like Michigan State is as good as its record. “We still have a lot to improve on. We’re definitely not playing as well as we know we can play.”
Added Branden Dawson, “Every time we win it’s like we lost. We keep talking about needing to get better. Northwestern played great tonight but Coach expects more from us and we expect more from us.”
That was already a difficult enough task with Payne out of the lineup for the second straight game, but it became more difficult as Dawson, who was diagnosed with a virus early in the week, didn’t start. It led to a starting lineup that hadn’t yet seen the floor together and it showed as the Spartans struggled early, going 1-for-11 from 3-point range in the first half and finishing 2-for-16.
The Spartans even managed to launch six airballs — Izzo said he counted.
“It was tough,” Harris said. “It’s tough on us when guys are moving around, guys are getting sick, guys are injured. But we still have to find a way to get a win. That’s all that matters.”
On Wednesday, the way to do that for Harris was pick up his defense and start attacking the basket. It certainly wasn’t happening from the perimeter.
“Sometimes you just know there are other ways to be involved,” he said. “The shots definitely weren’t falling today. You just have to find another way to put the ball in the basket.”
And while the offense was trying to find its way late in the second half, it looked like the Spartans would go another man down. In the final minutes, Appling stopped near midcourt and grabbed his right shoulder, the same shoulder he injured last season.
But Izzo insisted he wasn’t taking Appling out.
“I’m smart enough as a coach that I’ve got so many guys injured, when he got hurt I didn’t ask if he was OK,” Izzo said. “I just said he was playing. It didn’t matter.”
It turned out not to be a big deal. Appling said the shoulder sublexed — meaning it started to pop out but went right back in place. It’s something he has dealt with often since last season.
“I’m used to the feeling now,” Appling said. “After it settles down it doesn’t hurt as bad. I knew I was all right right away.”
Dawson managed to be fairly productive even at less than 100 percent.
He scored six points and grabbed 11 rebounds while Alex Gauna had one of his best games, scoring eight points and pulling down three rebounds. Dawson said he still felt dizzy at times but decided Tuesday at practice that he would play.
“I knew my team needed me and I had to suck it up,” he said, adding the team doctors would have more results from his blood tests on Friday.
Tre Demps scored 12 points to lead Northwestern (8-10, 1-4).