January 11, 2014

No. 4 Spartans tackle Northwestern

EAST LANSING - While Michigan State men's basketball coach Tom Izzo can be just as, or even more sentimental, as the next guy, he's not about to let it effect his competitive spirit and will to win basketball games.

So while he is very aware of the history, family and team connections associated with No. 4 MSU's 7 p.m. Wednesday matchup at Northwestern, Izzo will be concentrating of making sure the Spartans (15-1, 4-0 Big Ten) don't get tripped up by rookie head coach Chris Collins and the Wildcats.

Especially, when you consider that Northwestern (8-9, 1-3) will enter Wednesday's contest feeling pretty good about itself after knocking off a pretty good Illinois team, 49-43 on Sunday, which was Collins' first Big Ten win as a head coach.

Chris Collins, a former Duke standout and the son of former NBA player and coach, and now analyst Doug Collins, is looking to bring the Blue Devils winning pedigree to Evanston, after spending more than a decade on the bench with his old coach Mike Krzyzewski, as an assistant and eventual associate head coach in Durham, N.C.

"He's just another Dukie guy but I know him fairly well. I knew him when he was recruited,'' Izzo said of the second-generation coach. "I knew Doug decent. I have a lot of respect for Doug. I really enjoyed watching some of the things on Doug and (Chris) back from the Bulls days, that was cool. (and) I remember my first (Big Ten) win and I saw the excitement in his face (Sunday) night and I felt good for him - I really did. That will change (on Wednesday), but it's good to see someone who grew up in it.''

The Spartans are 82-38 all-time against Northwestern but just 32-30 in games played in Evanston.

While Northwestern is still trying to gain its footing in what will be another grueling season in the Big Ten, they have posed some problems for teams with their versatility in scoring options.

While 6-foot-5 senior guard/forward Drew Crawford - the son of longtime NBA referee Danny - is the team's leading scorer at 15.6 and 7 rebounds a game, it was sophomore guard Tre Demps who came of the bench in the Wildcats win over the Illini to finish 3-of-6 beyond the arc and score 11 points. Demps also provided a bonus eight rebounds, seven on the defensive end, and five assists to spark Northwestern's victory.

"Well they do shoot a lot of three, and sometimes they make them and sometimes they don't, but what I think they got them to do the other night was guard,'' Izzo said of the Wildcats who are giving up 71.5 points a game in Big Ten play. "I thought they guarded extremely well, it was a lot more like Big Ten defense; they put pressure on the ball, they sag off it, they were in the passing lanes and all of that.''

Eventhough Crawford remains the go-to offensive option for the Wildcats, there are other pieces to the Wildcat puzzle that make them a tough team to play against.

Junior guard Drew Sobolewski, the team's assist leader at 3.2 a game, also adds 6.7 points a game but the Wildcats, who usually play a three-guard rotation, have good size and production coming from the post.

Junior guard JerShon Cobb, the second of the Wildcats big guards at 6-5, is the team's second leading scorer at 11.9 points a contest. And 7-footer Alex Olah, Northwestern's second-year resident post presence, adds 9.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.

"I've loved Crawford ever since he was a freshman, he's competitive, tough, hard-nosed, plays a lot of different positions and doing anything he can do,'' said Izzo, who is 27-4 all-time against Northwestern. "Tre made a lot of three (Sunday) night, the big guy who is getting better.

"But I think defensively they are a better team, and anytime you win a game that gives you confidence, we got to go on the road and that place will be rocking and that will be exciting.''

With two of Northwestern's guards being listed at 6-5, this will be a game where it is imperative that sophomore guard Denzel Valentine, who gives MSU a backcourt with size at 6-5 himself, plays one of his better games in terms of ballhandling and defending against a bigger guard rotation.

Leading the way for the Spartans, as they seek to remain undefeated in conference play is All-Big, All-American and for some, national player of the year candidate, senior guard Keith Appling.

Appling, who enters Wednesday's contest as the only Big Ten player to lead the conference in 20-point, 7-assist outings with four, will step on the floor at Welsh-Ryan Arena averaging 16.4 points and a team-leading 4.6 assists per game.

Sophomore guard Garry Harris leads the Spartans attack at 17.8 points a game, while junior swingman Branden Dawson, who adds 10.4 points a contest but has been battling flu-like symptoms this week, is the Spartans' leading rebounder at 8.7 a game.

The Spartans will also enter Wednesday's game with another question mark on health concerning the sore right foot of senior forward Adreian Payne.

Payne, who averages a much-needed 16.2 points and 7.7 rebounds a game, gutted out an 18-point effort in MSU's win over Ohio State but didn't play in the Spartans' overtime over Minnesota. He is expected to be a gametime decision against the Wildcats on Wednesday.

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