I don’t believe in the concept of a “must win” game. Until modern sports revert to same rules as the ancient Mayans in their ball games where the losers are killed no such thing as a “must win” game exists. However, there are such things as important games and the men’s basketball contest between Northwestern and Michigan State is a very important game for Northwestern. With the Big Ten season opening loss to Purdue and three road contests out of the next four after they host the Spartans, Northwestern could realistically start the Big Ten season 1-5, if they do so no chance exists in my mind of them recovering and making the NCAA Tournament (barring a miracle run in Indy at the BTT). However, if the Wildcats somehow pull a 3-3 or, being overly optimistic, a 4-2 record in their first six games the Wildcats will in my mind be on their way to the NCAA Tournament. That’s why for me this game is the proverbial line in the sand for the Wildcats. If they can rally back from their loss at Purdue and beat a ranked MSU squad, they have a great chance to get momentum started and I could see them using that momentum to beat an Illinois team that looked good, but not great today vs Wisconsin and certainly to beat mediocre teams from Indiana and Iowa. On the other hand, if the Wildcats lose to MSU, I think Illinois will run them out of the gym and while they might beat Indiana, I won’t have great optimism about any road contest for NU if the ball starts rolling in a negative direction.
So, how can NU draw that line in the sand and beat the Spartans? Well it won’t be easy. Bill Carmody has beaten Michigan State just twice in his career as NU’s head coach. However, the good news is that Michigan State isn’t an overly complex team to defend. As any Big Ten fan knows Coach Tom Izzo’s team’s have a pretty basic road map they follow to success. Izzo’s teams always play great defense, hit the boards hard, hustle to beat teams down the court in transition, and are good passers. When NU has beat MSU, they’ve found weaknesses in at least a couple of those traits. For example, NU’s memorable 2009 win in East Lansing found the Wildcats forcing the Spartans into terrible passes versus the 1-3-1 and making enough shots MSU’s effort to beat NU down the court was fruitless. This year’s MSU team has drawn Izzo’s ire in regards to some issues related to their toughness and they have a 1-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. Now, I can make myself believe the Wildcats can play good enough defense to force the Spartans into turnovers. But can the Wildcats truly hang with MSU on the glass? Izzo said MSU was “a pretty boy jump shooting team” but forward Draymond Green still gets 8.9 rebounds a game. I somewhat question whether NU center Luka Mirkovic who got just one rebound vs Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson can attack the glass vs Green, Delvon Roe, Durrell Summers, and the rest of the super athletic Spartans. Obviously, it isn’t just Luka, but he’s the one I’m looking at the most. Sure, I said it was a line in the sand game for the whole team, but it’s an even bigger one for Luka in my mind. A lot of people went all chuckles the clown over his 16 points at Purdue, but one (1!) rebound from a guy the PA announces at 6-11 isn’t acceptable. He needs to be more of a factor or at least try to be more of a factor. Even if he gets five quick fouls he needs to at least demonstrate some level of toughness.
Aside from causing turnovers and getting rebounds NU obviously has to make shots. More specifically, they need to make three point shots. Even if Luka and Davide Curletti have good games on the glass I suspect that MSU will get some cheap put backs. With size like Garrick Sherman, Austin Thornton, and Adreian Payne that’s just going to happen. Therefore, NU needs to counter that first with turnovers, but secondly by making three point shots. Drew Crawford needs to have a much better day than he had against Purdue and John Shurna needs to either be a factor or realize he isn’t going to be one and give way to a healthy player. With as quick as MSU is we can’t have plays like on Friday where Shurna is trailing the play by ten feet as the ball gets into the front court. NU also needs shooting from JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio. It’ll take a team effort to beat the Spartans and those two young men have it them to get hot from deep and the ‘Cats need to see it. Finally, the Wildcats need a much better game from Juice Thompson than they got vs Purdue. Michigan State will capitalize on turnovers with the quickness of Kalin Lucas and Korie Lucious so Juice can’t be committing five turnovers. He needs two or less and needs to score somewhere in the 18-24 point range. If that happens NU has a great chance.
Looking at the numbers I think between this and the Illinois game Thursday this is the game NU has the better chance to win. I also think that NU’s players know this is a huge game and while NU athletics hasn’t exactly been money in key games (see the football team in primetime contests) the Wildcats men’s basketball team did win a supposed “NCAA-Tournament elimination game” last year vs Illinois. It turns out that contest wasn’t what it was billed as, but NU thought it was at the time and they showed up and stood up (as did NU’s fans and I hope to see the same vs the Spartans). Therefore, I’m saying that ‘Cats get this one because they’ve done if before and if they don’t we could be in for a tough year. I predict: Northwestern, 79 Michigan State, 72