Feb. 12, 2014
NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look at the Northwestern men's basketball team's contest at No. 9/10 Michigan State on Thursday.
TESTIMONY: Tim Miles, the Nebraska coach, noted it last Saturday after his Huskers barely beat the `Cats. "Everybody struggles to score against them. They've got this level of physicality they haven't had in the past," he said then.
Fran McCaffery, the Iowa coach, noted it too after his Hawkeyes buried the `Cats 18 days ago. "They fought us hard," he said. "Chris (Collins) has them playing with a mindset that has really been impressive. What Northwestern forces you to do now, if you don't match their intensity level, you're going to get beat."
But the first to note it was Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose Spartans topped the `Cats shortly after they had transformed themselves into a lunch bucket brigade based on boundless energy and palpable will. "You kicked our butt defensively. I thought you played harder than us," he would tell Collins after that game, and then later he more publicly declared this.
"That team tonight was tough," he declared. "They played tough. They were a joy to watch. I wish I could've come here and watched them play Michigan. Then I would have felt way better for them."
"It meant a lot to us," Collins recently said when asked about that comment, and then he explained why. "To me, Coach Izzo and Michigan State have been the standard of excellence in this league for a long time. You look at his record, you look at his Final Fours, his league record, he's consistently done it for a long time. And the way they've done it is through toughness, and through playing defense, and through doing a lot of dirty work. So for him to recognize our guys for doing some of those similar things, it means more.
"He's been around a long time, and he's coached tough teams, he's coached teams that have done those things, and certainly it was a great compliment to our players. It's given us confidence, to have people respect the way we're playing. It doesn't mean we've arrived. We have a long way to go. But for Coach Izzo to say those things about our team and about our players, it definitely means a lot."
ON DECK: The `Cats take on the Spartans again on Thursday, this time up in East Lansing, and the broad outline of their challenge is clear. "If you want to have any chance at all," says Collins, "you have to match their toughness, their physicality. You know they're going to play hard. So if you want to have any chance, you have to match those things before you can even talk about the strategic things."
THE REALITY: For a month now the `Cats have operated at a full-tilt boogie, scratching and clawing on every possession and ending every game drenched in sweat and drained to the max. They have done this with a short bench and in affairs as taut as a good murder mystery, and this has delivered them both unexpected success and well-earned respect. But now the final month of the season looms and so the questions must be asked. Are they in danger of wearing down? Are they capable of continuing on at such a fervid beat? "It's tough," admits Sanjay Lumpkin, a freshman who has averaged 33.9 minutes a-game over the last month.
"Playing so few guys, there are a lot of big-minute guys, so it might get tough during the game. But we've got to keep fighting. We did it against Minnesota (in their one-point win on Feb. 1). We grinded to the end. It was a tough game, we were both worn down. But we got the win. So we've just got to fight through every game, play as hard as we can for 40 minutes, and see what happens."
Is that a mental or physical challenge?
"It's both," says Lumpkin. "Guys'll get tired. But I like to look at the other team when I get tired and see how tired they are and then I just keep going. That's what we all do. We just got to keep fighting. It's 40 minutes. That's all it is."
THE CONUNDRUM: Chris Collins, of course, knows the reality. He knows that Drew Crawford has averaged 39.6 minutes in the `Cats last eight games, that JerShon Cobb has averaged 36.7 minutes over that stretch, that center Alex Olah has averaged 32.9 minutes along side them. He knows this and says, "I worry about some of them at times, and I'm always searching for ways to get them a few minutes here, a few minutes there.
"But"--and this an important but--"our games have been so low scoring. Like we took Drew out of the game for a couple minutes against Minnesota and it was a 16-2 run for Minnesota. For us, we don't have the ability to have big comeback runs, so it's hard for us to sit our main guys for extended periods. You could lose the game in a four-minute stretch."
TO THE Xs AND Os: Last Sunday, in their loss to the Huskers, the `Cats were burned by the 6-foot-10 Walter Pitchford, a pick-and-pop center who hit three-of-his-four three-point attempts. Now, on Thursday, they bump up against an even-better version of that species in the Spartans 6-foot-10 Adreian Payne, who sat out the first meeting between these teams. "You pick your poison," Collins will say when asked about combating him.
"And a lot of times it's not just Alex (Olah) involved in the pick-and-pop. It's the guy on the ball. It's the help defenders. Do you rotate? Do you fake at them? Do you switch? There's a lot of different things you can do to try and combat that. But what Michigan State's doing a lot too, they're playing two big guys. So there's going to be a lot of times where Payne's going to be matched up with one of our other guys as well. . .and now he's a low-post threat against a Sanjay or a Drew."
And just how do you defend him down there, we later asked the 6-foot-5 Crawford.
"You have to combat him with quickness and, because you're not as tall as him, you have to work around him faster and make him uncomfortable with the movement you have," he said. "You have to use quickness to make things tough for him. That's how you have to play him."
QUICKLY NOTED: Payne returned to the Spartans' starting lineup in their loss Sunday at Wisconsin, where he put up 24 points. But they will face the `Cats without Branden Dawson (broken hand), their leading rebounder, and probably without Keith Appling (sore wrist), their senior point and leader. The latter is officially listed day-to-day. But Monday, on his weekly radio show, Izzo said, "I don't expect him back this week.". . . The Spartans have been so mottled by injuries, they have used 13 different starting lineups in their last 19 games. . . The big guys the Spartans use alongside Payne are Matt Costello and Alex Gauna and Gavin Schilling, who are each 6-foot-9, and the 6-foot-8 Kenny Kaminski, who has hit 50 percent of his three-point attempts (26-of-52). . . The Spartans leading scorer is guard Gary Harris, who has averaged 17.1 points in their 11 conference games. . . Here is why Saturday's affair promises to be a tooth pull. In conference games only, the `Cats lead the Big Ten in scoring defense (62.4 ppg) and are second in field goal percentage defense (40.1). The Spartans, in turn, are first in field goal percentage defense (39.4) and second in scoring defense (64.2).
AND FINALLY, a smiling Lumpkin, who has mentioned that some `Cats are banged up, when asked if he himself is banged up: "Nah. I'm all right. I'm young."
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