Then and Now Preview: Michigan State

WNUR’s Michael Stern (@MichaelJStern23) previews each of Northwestern’s opponents by looking at how each team did for the first few years under their current head coach. Today: Michigan State and Tom Izzo.

As a “NU” era begins at Northwestern, Chris Collins and the Wildcats are encountering some struggles in Collins’ first year at the helm. The Illinois win was Collins’ first big-time moment as Northwestern head coach, after disappointing non-conference losses (Illinois State, DePaul) and conference blowouts (Wisconsin, Michigan). But every coach goes through this. Don’t believe me? I’ll be looking at the then and now of each Northwestern opponent, starting with Michigan State.

Then: Spartan assistant Tom Izzo replaced legendary coach Jud Heathcote at Michigan State for the 1995-1996 season. The Spartans finished a measly 16-16 in Izzo’s first year (they beat Northwestern by double digits twice, however) and missed the NCAA tournament in each of Izzo’s first two seasons. In 1997-1998, Izzo’s Spartans broke through, earning a 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16. That Spartan team got contributions from Izzo recruits Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, and Charlie Bell, all of whom would play big roles on the Spartans’ 1999-2000 championship team.

Now: Izzo’s Spartans have lost only once this season (at home to North Carolina, somehow) and are unbeaten in Big Ten play. The Spartans’ 15-1 record is a testament to their depth, as only three Michigan State players have played in all 16 games this season: point guard Keith Appling, defensive specialist Denzel Valentine, and little-used freshman substitute Gavin Schilling. Michigan State has six players who play more than half of the game: team leader Appling, leading scorer Gary Harris (CBS Sports’ ninth-ranked 2014 NBA draft prospect), defender Valentine, sixth man Travis Trice, and rebound-monsters Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson. The 6-10 Payne is also a 43 percent three-point shooter, which is scary because Kale Abrahamson leads Northwestern at 36.6 percent from beyond the arc. However, Payne and Dawson have both been banged up lately. Payne is listed as questionable with a right foot sprain and Dawson recently experienced dizziness and underwent tests Tuesday morning to make sure he doesn’t have mono. The up-in-the-air statuses of Payne and Dawson have led to more minutes for reserve forwards Matt Costello (a sophomore and Dawson’s roommate who missed most of December with mono) and Kenny Kaminski (a freshman who has made 15 of his first 24 three-pointers for the Spartans).

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