GAME PREVIEW - Amid all of the questions about the possibility of Michigan State not playing with the same intensity, purpose and commitment it did in blowing out instate rival Michigan, one of its captains may have had the best answer.
"We've just got to play,'' said junior guard and captain Keith Appling , who enters Saturday's game just 13 points shy of becoming the 43rd Spartan to score 1,000 points in his career. "If we don't come ready to play we can come up short. We've just got to focus in. It's as simple as that.''
One of the reasons Appling may have kept his answer - to a question that seemed to come up time and time again after Thursday's practice - short, was probably because, like his teammates, he didn't want to dwell on the possibility that No. 8 and first-place MSU (21-4, 10-2 Big Ten) could approach Saturday's 8 p.m. rematch with Nebraska (12-13, 3-9) with any less focus than it did against U-M; or is expected to against Indiana next Tuesday.
But even MSU coach Tom Izzo expressed his worries after what he thought was pretty spirited practice early Thursday evening and with a team he says has done a good job of understanding the moment all season.
"It is a concern of mine but yet I think this team hasn't thought they're better than they are, it's just that sometimes we just don't play with the same energy level and that's what I'm looking for now that they've done it (against Michigan) at a very high level and see if we can keep them there,'' Izzo said.
But of course why wouldn't Izzo be feeling a little apprehensive about a trip to Lincoln to face a team whose record is not indicative of how dangerous they can be to a team like the Spartans.
In their first meeting, Nebraska gave Michigan State all it could handle before succumbing late in the game, eventually falling 66-56 - a deficit determined more by six late free throws than MSU's stellar play as they went into the last 2:36 of that game up by just one point.
All-in-all, it was not a good showing for the Spartans, who allowed Nebraska's perimeter-dominated attack to finish just five rebounds behind MSU on the boards.
"They could have beaten us and this time, it's going to be at their place and the fans are going to be into it so we just have to focus in and do some things right that we did wrong when we played them the first time,'' Appling said.
MSU hopes Saturday's contest will be nowhere near as nail biting as the first meeting eventhough Nebraska has recently given both Ohio State and Indiana fits before both upper echelon Big Ten powers helped send the Huskers to nine losses in their first 12 Big Ten outings.
Although Nebraska, which owns a 5-3 record in games played in Lincoln but trails the overall series 11-6, has won two of their last three home contests.
For MSU, the key to slowing the Huskers offense will come in the form of the same kind of suffocating perimeter defense MSU used in taking Michigan's offense out of it's rhythm.
Nebraska is led by three double-figure scorers; senior guard Dylan Talley, junior guard Ray Gallegos and senior forward Brandon Ubel.
Talley and Gallegos are averaging 13.2 and 13 points a game, respectively, while Ubel, the team's leading rebounder - who didn't play in the first meeting - at 6.9 boards a game, checks in at 11.6 points a contest.
After that, the 'Huskers next highest point producer is freshman guard Shavon Shields, who adds 7.3 points a game.
In that first game, though, it was sophomore guard David Rivers, who enters Saturday averaging just 6.9 points a game, who hit all eight of his shots to lead three 'Huskers in double-digit scoring with 18 points, while MSU's guards combined to go just 3-of-22 from the field.
This time, matching Nebraska offensively shouldn't be a problem for MSU, which enters Saturday averaging 69.9 a game to Nebraska's 58.6 a contest.
The Cornhuskers have a scoring margin of minus-3.9, a rebounding margin of minus-2.6 but take care of the ball fairly well, committing just 11.1 a game.
So really, the only thing that can hurt the Spartans - who boast a scoring margin of plus-11 and a rebounding margin of plus-6.7 - on Saturday night is if they fly in to Lincoln over confident and unenthusiastic about the task at hand.
"It's just the the No. 1 issue, to see the maturity of this team, the leadership of this team,'' Izzo said. (Because last time MSU played Nebraska) I thought it was one of the more disappointing Big Ten games we played. So I'm anxious to see if our guys are going to rise to the occasion. It's really a big game for us.''
Led by Appling's 14 points, four assists and 3.7 rebounds per game, MSU has lost just once in its last 12 games and enters Saturday's game atop the Big Ten with a 5-3 road record, sharing first place with the Tom Crean-led Indiana Hoosiers.
Third place is shared by Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State, who all sit two games back in the standings.
Freshman guard Gary Harris adds 12.9 points a contest, while sophomore wing Branden Dawson rounds out a trio of double-figure threats with 10.8 points a game.
Three Spartans check in at six or more rebounds a game with junior forward Adreian Payne leading the pack a 6.7 boards a contest.
Senior center Derrick Nix and Dawson pitch in with 6.3 boards apiece.
That should once again prove to be the area where MSU will have its strongest advantage because after 12 conference games MSU enters game No. 13 averaging 37.5 rebounds a game to the opponent's 30.8.
Despite those favorable numbers, Nix called this a dangerous game for the Spartans.
"They've got some big boys and some shooters like Gallegos, so we have to go down there, stay focused and try and come away with a victory,'' Nix said.
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