Michigan State's reshuffled lineup pays dividends

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Evanston, Ill. — After Michigan State lost at home to Illinois on Saturday, coach Tom Izzo was as mad as he's been a long time. And with the Spartans slowly watching their postseason hopes starting to slip away, he wasn't about to sit back and just let the last eight games of the regular season play out.

His first move was to shake up the starting lineup for Tuesday's game at Northwestern.

Enter freshman Lourawls Nairn at point guard with senior Travis Trice coming off the bench. The Spartans did that one other time this season against Indiana and the result was a 20-point victory with Nairn playing a season-high 26 minutes and Trice handing out seven assists in 24 minutes.

"We're going to mix up our lineup a little bit tonight and see if we can get a better rotation," Izzo said on the pregame show. "It doesn't mean anybody's minutes change that much, it just means the rotation changes."

The main goal was to provide a spark for Trice. In the last three games he is 9-for-29 from the field and 4-for-19 from 3-point range. He scored eight in the win over Michigan and just six in the loss to Illinois.

The results on Tuesday were positive, for the most part, as Trice scored 16 points and was 4-for-6 from 3-point range and Nairn effectively pushed the pace from the outset in Michigan State's 68-44 victory.

"I do think he played a little harder, he looked for his shot a little bit more," Izzo said of Trice. "He didn't take the bad shots, one was the shot clock that he had to. I just thought he played better. He hasn't been playing as hard defensively if you ask me. He looked more comfortable. So I don't know. I think the second part of that it was good to have someone come off the bench that could score some points."

It was Trice's best shooting performance since he scored 25 against Iowa and was 7-for-8 from 3-point range. After hitting four triples against Northwestern, he didn't feel like he needed to save any for later this week against Ohio State.

"No, especially the way we've been shooting lately," he said. "You definitely want to see the ball go through the hoop."

Izzo wouldn't say whether he will stick with the same lineup moving forward, but there was plenty he liked about it.

"Well (Nairn) pushes the ball better than anybody, that's one thing that he does, and he defends pretty well," Izzo said. "He can get over ball screens better than anybody I've had in a long time. Our bigs didn't have to help as much. I thought he gave us some of that. We tried to wear down their point guard because we knew that was Tum's strength, and then Trav comes in fresh, the other guy's a little tired and he can come off ball screens well. He did a pretty good job of that."

Key players count

Michigan State is now 3-2 away from home and Izzo was asked if his team is better when it plays on the road.

"You know, I've heard that rumor," he said, "but I've got more emails than Carter's got liver pills. I've got witch doctors in California wanting to shoot free throws. I've got extra coaches from all over the country. I've heard that rumor, we're not as good at home. We're not as good if our key players don't play well. A couple of our key players were not playing very well, and they were challenged this week and played better. And I think that's the key, home or away, I think that's the biggest key to be honest."

Slam dunks

Michigan State entered the game shooting 62.1 percent from the free-throw line, the worst in the Big Ten. Against Northwestern, it was 9-for-13 for 69.2 percent, which was the best it has shot since the last time it played the Wildcats. In an 84-77 overtime victory at home, the Spartans were 19-for-26 (73.1 percent).

"We shot better from line," Izzo said. "Nothing write home about."

… Michigan State wore white for the second straight road game as Northwestern donned alternate black uniforms for the game. The Spartans also wore white last week in their game at Rutgers, which also wore black.

… Dawson had four blocks in the first half, giving him 112 for his career. He trails third-place Draymond Green (117) by five. Adreian Payne (141) is the all-time leader while Drew Naymick is second (134).