Scouting the Spartans

When Northwestern faced Michigan State on Jan. 14, 2012, the Wildcats stole an 81-74 victory on the heels of Davide Curletti's excellent performance. Today, they face the Spartans as a completely different team. NU can only hope to gain momentum against the superior Spartans.

On Jan. 14, 2012, Michigan State guaranteed its place in Northwestern basketball nostalgia. That afternoon – on my memorable nineteenth birthday – Davide Curletti played the hero. If you asked the fans in attendance during NU's cathartic 81-74 win, the majority would probably have justified the excitement: it was going to be the year.

More than one year since, NU faces Michigan State in East Lansing on Sunday. After, Tom Izzo will not be praising Curletti and John Shurna. He'll be assessing his team heading into another tournament appearance. And more likely than not, Izzo will have to answer questions about Bill Carmody. A different, broken group of Wildcats face these Spartans.

Despite an unfortunate three-game losing streak, all of which came against ranked opponents, the Spartans appear primed for a deep tournament run. This time, it's led by their youth. Freshman Gary Harris proved himself an excellent scorer. The guard shoots 47 percent overall, and more than 41 percent from behind the arc. He turns the ball over just 1.4 times per game.

Key juniors have struggled with inconsistency this season. Point guard Keith Appling leads the team with 13.4 points per game, but has already failed to reach double figures 10 times. Last year, his poor outing helped spring NU to the upset. He drained 17 points, but that came on for 4-of-13 shooting, which included five missed three-point attempts.

Despite facing frequent foul trouble, Adreian Payne excelled in an expanded role this season. The 6-10 forward shoots 57 percent from the floor, and more impressively, knocks down 82 percent of his free throw attempts. It doesn't take an outstanding frontcourt player to beat NU on the interior (see: Sasa Borovnjak, Brandon Ubel), but Payne has been solid – and should get his points easily tonight.

Sophomore Branden Dawson adds another layer to Izzo's team. At just 6-6, Dawson plays bigger. He thrives on creating inside looks and averages six rebounds per game. Though the forward has slumped recently – averaging less than five points in his last five games – he hopes for a breakout effort heading into this week's Big Ten Tournament.

Like any vintage Izzo team, these Spartans are solid. They're not a likely upset candidate. They ranked third in both field goal percentage and field goal percentage defense. They defend extremely well on the perimeter, with opponents shooting 30 percent from three. And they rank third in rebounding margin. It's an all-around solid basketball team. Aside from a few too many turnovers (13.5 per game), MSU is strong in just about every department.

Could NU make a lineup switch heading into the game? Alex Marcotullio went off for a career-high 22 points on Thursday in Senior Night. He might replace Tre Demps, who still looks unimpressive when given increased playing time. That could provide a wrench, and an additional perimeter threat.

The Wildcats are clearly overmatched, and MSU fights for a regular season Big Ten title. But they need to look motivated. That's all we can ask. With Bill Carmody's job status in danger, NU will need to show up strong.

Also: NU faces Iowa on Thursday in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Time to gain some much-needed late momentum, even in a lost season.

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