Northwestern-Michigan St. Preview
After ending its longest slide of the season, Michigan State still has a chance to earn a piece of the Big Ten title.
The No. 10 Spartans can achieve that feat for the fourth time in five years by getting some help, then handing visiting Northwestern an eighth straight defeat in Sunday night's regular-season finale.
Following three straight losses by a combined 13 points to Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan, Michigan State (23-7, 12-5) posted a much-needed 58-43 win over No. 22 Wisconsin at home Thursday. The Spartans pestered the Badgers into season lows for points and field-goal percentage (29.4) and a season-high 17 turnovers.
The victory put the Spartans in a three-way tie for second place with the seventh-ranked Wolverines and No. 14 Buckeyes, one game behind the second-ranked Hoosiers. A Michigan State victory Sunday, combined with an Indiana loss at Michigan earlier, would produce a shared conference title for at least three teams.
Coach Tom Izzo wouldn't say he'll be rooting for the rival Wolverines.
"I'm going to pull for Michigan State," Izzo said. "And, I'm going to pull for Derrick Nix," referring to the Spartans' lone senior.
"It's my dream that this program is to the point where every year in the last week, week and a half, last two, three games, we still have a mathematical chance to win a championship," Izzo added. "The only sad part for me is we had a chance to have destiny in our own hands and we didn't take care of that."
Though they've been facing difficult competition, the Spartans have averaged just 60.8 points and shot 39.8 percent over their last four games. They scored 73.4 per game on 50.0 percent shooting while winning the previous five in a row.
Leading scorer Keith Appling (13.4 points per game), however, might be getting back on track. The junior guard went 7 of 13 from the field Thursday and finished with 19 points - one more than he totaled on 5-of-23 shooting during the three-game slide.
"It was just a matter of me staying with it and not letting the missed shots get to me," Appling told Michigan State's official website. "We lost three in a row and there was disappointment, upset, frustration - all of the above.
"I practice with all these guys each and every day and I know what type of players they are and individuals they are, so I never questioned our toughness."
Though Northwestern (13-17, 4-13) snapped a four-game series skid with an 81-74 home victory over Michigan State last season and has played the Spartans tough at the Breslin Center in recent years, the Wildcats are in danger of dropping eight straight for the first time since 2001.
Senior Alex Marcotullio had a career-high 22 points Thursday but Northwestern allowed last-place Penn State to score 13 of the final 18 points in a 66-59 home loss. The Wildcats, who have lost three of their top players to injuries and suspension this season, have failed to reach 60 points in each game during their losing streak, shooting 34.2 percent in that stretch.
Appling has totaled 36 points in his last two games versus Northwestern, including 19 in a 71-67 overtime victory the last time the Wildcats visited East Lansing in 2011.