Maybe I've reached a new insane level of optimism.
But I think Northwestern will beat Michigan State Saturday in East Lansing.
Yes, I know, I'm crazy. Michigan State beat Northwestern by 21 at Welsh Ryan Arena. They're undefeated in Big Ten play. NU is coming off a road loss to a mediocre Minnesota team. Did I mention that MSU is ranked No.5 in the country? Northwestern is happy to be receiving five votes in the AP poll.
And yes...I know the only reason NU beat Michigan State in the Breslin Center last year was Kevin Coble's spectacular mastery of the bank shot.
But here's the thing. The first time these two teams met up, Drew Crawford wasn't DREW CRAWFORD. What I mean by that is he only scored eight points versus the Spartans. Since then he has scored 25, 10, 15, 11, 15, and 11 points respectively in Big Ten play. If you break those games down, the 'Cats are undefeated when Crawford scores 15 or more points this year.
Something tells me he's getting to that plateau tomorrow. Why?
Because no matter how much film study one does of an opponent, human nature is going to take over. Michigan State is going to be focusing all their energy on stopping the lone player who burned them last time: John Shurna. (They'd also have to worry about stopping Alex Marcotullio if he was still alive, but I digress.)
Shurna tallied 29 points while taking nearly a third of the shots last time out against the Spartans. The focus will be on him, and the pressure will shift to Michael "Juice" Thompson. Juice got loose against then-No. 6 Purdue, and he was effective last year against Kalin Lucas, scoring 20 points (which matched the eventual Big Ten Player of the Year's total).
But he has chosen some bad times to disappear this season, including the first time around against MSU where he only scored 8 points. Juice makes the offense run, we saw that against Illinois. Even when he doesn't score, he makes everyone else better when he's on the floor.
But he's going to have to score against Michigan State.
I was disappointed with his performance on the last, chaotic possession against Minnesota, and I'm sure he feels the same way. The man is the ultimate competitor and will not accept mediocrity. Look for Juice to redeem himself against MSU by playing with more aggression and confidence.
Better performances from Crawford and Thompson should equal more success for NU on offense.
Now we switch to defense, which was the primary issue the first time around, as the Wildcats allowed Michigan State to score 91 (!) points.
First of all, Durrell Summers played out of his mind in that game, scoring 17 points. Since then he's scored 0, 3, 13, 7, 12, 9, and 10 points respectively. So the man is all over the map. He's the classic case of a super athlete who is also really inconsistent. Some games he's unstoppable, other games he disappears. The key against a player like Summers is preventing the fast-break buckets that he thrives on. You do that by getting back on defense and avoiding stupid turnovers.
Lucas and Raymar Morgan are going to get their points. So stopping X-factor type players like Summers is critical to pulling off the upset.
The reason why I think Northwestern can contain MSU's scoring is because this isn't the same MSU squad that put up 91 last time out. If you look at the bigger picture, those 91 points were the culmination of an offensive explosion, having scored 80 or more points in three of their previous four games.
They haven't scored more than 73 since.
Plus, that was an angry MSU team. They'd just lost to Texas two games ago. Now, I don't care how good a coach Tom Izzo is, this is a much more relaxed MSU team.
They're too relaxed. They've won their past three games by a combined nine points.
They already got their revenge for last year by wiping the floor with NU in Evanston.
They won't see the upset coming.
Northwestern teams, in both football and basketball, play their best when their backs are against the wall and no one is paying attention. Coming off a loss to Minnesota, which ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi termed "an elimination game" for the NCAA tournament...no one is thinking about NU.
They will be soon.
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