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Struggling Michigan State meets Nebraska with both teams 'desperate for a win'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

As Michigan State travels to Nebraska on Saturday night, both teams find themselves sitting at the bottom of the Big Ten standings.

While it’s a familiar spot for the Cornhuskers these days, it’s not for the Spartans. But by the time the ball tips at Pinnacle Bank Arena, both teams will certainly understand they still in a similar position.

“I’m sure Nebraska feels like us,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “They’re desperate for a win.”

Rocket Watts

It’s hard to argue with Izzo on that one.

No. 17 Michigan State is ranked in the top 25 – for now. After another loss to open the week at No. 21 Minnesota, that will surely change on Monday, regardless of what happens against Nebraska. And the Cornhuskers have now lost 12 in a row against ranked opponents after getting blown out at Ohio State on Wednesday.

It’s left both teams scrambling for answers, though Izzo and the Spartans (6-3, 0-3 Big Ten) are doing their best not to hit the panic button as their chances for a fourth straight conference title are quickly dwindling.

“Trying to keep things in perspective in a year when there is no perspective available,” Izzo said. “We just lost to three top-25 teams – Minnesota, Northwestern and Wisconsin. … There's no question this league is the best it's been 100 years, and we did not play well enough to win.”

The Big Ten is certainly trending as the toughest conference in the nation. Seven teams are ranked in the top 25 at, while 13 of the 14 teams are rated 54 or better.

Nebraska (4-6, 0-3) is the outlier, sitting at No. 121.

Subscription: Here's what Michigan State basketball must do to climb back in the Big Ten race

It would seem like the perfect spot for Michigan State to start to turn things around. But if the offense looks like it did at Minnesota, it might not matter. In that game, the Spartans were just 6-for-38 in the first half and ended the game only 18-for-70.

It was a miserable offensive outing, one full of a stagnant offense that settled for a high number of bad shots. And once the misses piled up, it was hard stem the tide.

“First and foremost we’ve just got to get better shots,” junior Joey Hauser said. “It’s not like guys were making bad decisions on the shots they are taking. We’ve got to do a better job getting our offense flowing, getting guys moving more, and throwing the ball in the post is going to help out a lot of different people. There’s going to be opportunities for us to kick that ball back out to the wings and get them shots or to score the ball. … Being able to go inside-out is really important.”

Teddy Allen

In an effort to get that offense moving again, Izzo is planning to use Rocket Watts primarily at shooting guard after nine games of trying to transition the sophomore to playing the point. It hasn’t gone well, for the most part, and Izzo thinks finding a comfort level is important.

How much it helps an offense that ranks 13th in the Big Ten in efficiency is tough to say, but it’s hard to believe it will hurt.

Meanwhile, Michigan State will be facing a Nebraska team with an overhauled roster featuring seven Division I transfers. However, the Cornhuskers are having some of the same issues as the Spartans.

In the loss to Ohio State, Nebraska managed to make just one of its last 18 shots in the first half and was 5-for-33 from 3-point range. It also had just three assists to 15 turnovers.

“It’s unfortunate we can't throw that thing in the ocean right now,” Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I thought we missed some really good shots in the first 10 minutes that kind of set the tone for the game.”

The Spartans hope Nebraska’s offensive struggles will allow them to shore up their defense, as well. Michigan State is last in the conference in defensive efficiency, a spot it’s almost never in.

Can a trip to Lincoln, Neb., be a cure for all of Michigan State’s ills? Perhaps, and Izzo believes when it’s all said and done, his team will be back in a familiar spot.

“We have started out where three of our first four games have been on the road, and just because there's no fans in the stands, being on the road is on the road,” Izzo said. “So, it has not been an easy stretch for us, but you’ve got to love that the league's as good as it is. And we're going to find a way to make sure we're competing in this league like Michigan State teams have in the past and will in the future.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

No. 17 Michigan State at Nebraska

Tip-off: 8 p.m. Saturday, Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, Neb.

TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 6-3, 0-3 Big Ten; Nebraska 4-6, 0-3

Outlook: Michigan State has won six in a row in the series, including three in a row in Lincoln. … Junior guard Teddy Allen, a junior college transfer, is leading Nebraska in scoring at 17.7 points a game. Sophomore guard Dalano Banton, a transfer from Western Kentucky, is averaging 13.4 points and 7.5 rebounds for the Cornhuskers.