No. 14 Michigan State wary of scrappy last-place Northwestern
East Lansing — It’s been said over and over this season — there are no easy games in the Big Ten.
That’s hard to argue when taking a glance at the standings and comparing them to the rankings, especially those that matter to the NCAA Tournament selection committee. The teams are jumbled tight in the race for a conference title and 12 of the Big Ten’s 14 teams are slotted No. 44 or better in the most recent NET rankings.
So, no, there aren’t many gimmies in the Big Ten, even when last-place Northwestern is coming to town. At least, that’s the way No. 14 Michigan State is approaching its 6:30 tip-off on Wednesday night at the Breslin Center after completing a two-game road swing last week with a loss at Indiana and a win at Minnesota.
“Coming back here concerns me,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said of the second meeting with the Wildcats. “We won the first game by five, but they've gotten stronger and better since that game. I think we've gotten better.
“But anytime you have a home game against a team you've beaten and has struggled a little bit, it's a trap game. So I'm concerned that they're a dangerous team that played Illinois to the buzzer. They played Maryland to kind of the buzzer and they lost the tough game last week to Ohio State.”
While the Wildcats have been coming close, Michigan State (15-5,7-2 Big Ten) has had to figure some things out on the road since they won at Northwestern on Dec. 18. The 29-point loss to Purdue was an eye-opener followed by another slow start last week at Indiana. However, the Spartans fought back to take a second-half lead against the Hoosiers and then won by 18 at Minnesota.
Now the key is to not overlook Northwestern (6-13, 1-8), a team that has won just once in its last 10 games and hasn’t beaten Michigan State since 2012.
Still, the Spartans insist there will be no looking past the Wildcats.
“You’ve got to come with your best each and every night,” senior guard Cassius Winston said, “and if you don’t, you’re liable to get beat.”
The fact that winning any conference game is tough is certainly a factor. In conference play, there are few secrets and there’s also the idea that it’s tough to sweep teams in a single season.
It all has the Spartans wary of the rematch.
“They know us and we know them,” sophomore guard Aaron Henry said. “We already played them earlier in the season and there’s probably gonna be some get-back to them because you beat them on their home court. So we’ve got to look at it like that, and even though they're at the bottom of the league, that's not something we can look at. Every team in Big Ten is good and anybody can lose to anybody.
“So you can look at it like that for them and they've been in almost every game that they lost. So we’ve got to come prepared.”
Whether that means Henry coming off the bench remains to be seen.
At Minnesota on Sunday, Izzo shuffled his lineup, inserting Rocket Watts into the starting lineup for Henry while bringing Malik Hall in for Marcus Bingham.
It was the first time this season Henry did not start when he played and he scored nine points, had four rebounds and four steals.
“Aaron, I think responded really well coming off the bench,” Izzo said. “And yet I'm still looking for that consistency out of him.
“I think I know where I'm going to go with the lineup. But again, it’s no big secret but Aaron is more than worthy of being a starter, so that doesn't mean everything. But Aaron, if we get through to Aaron, we're going to go from good to great.”
Henry understands that as well as anyone. Winston seems to have broken out of a mini-slump and Xavier Tillman has been what Izzo called Michigan State’s “most consistent” player.
But if Henry continues to progress, there seems to be no limit to where Michigan State’s season goes from here. The Spartans are tied for first place with Illinois and the Northwestern matchup marks the halfway point of the Big Ten season.
The title won’t be handed to the Spartans. They know that. But Henry’s progression could be the turning point in a conference race that promises to go down to the wire.
“Just realizing that we were going to get everybody's best game and we got to match that intensity from the jump,” Henry said when asked what last week proved. “We’ve got to bring our own (energy). We want teams to match ours instead of us matching theirs. We don't want to be the team that is depending on how they play. It’s how we play. We want to separate ourselves, and that's what coach keeps emphasizing.”
Northwestern at No. 14 Michigan State
Tip-off: 6:30 Wednesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
Records: Northwestern 6-13, 1-8; Michigan State 15-5, 7-2
Outlook: Northwestern’s Boo Buie came off the bench to score 26 in the last meeting. He is one of three Big Ten players to come off the bench to score at least 26 points in a game but the only freshman to accomplish this feat this season. … Northwestern's underclassmen account for 76.8 percent of the Wildcats scoring this season. … Freshman Miller Kopp has scored 15 or more in five straight games.