Before going on the road for two tough games at Purdue and Indiana, No.11 Michigan State had to take care of Northwestern on Saturday night.
MSU entered the game 13-0 at home and the Wildcats came 0-10 in conference play. On paper the game seemed like a tune-up before hitting the road.
But what MSU got was a scrappy Wildcats team that wouldn’t go away, and forced the green and white into a battle that few expected.
With a week off since a disappointing loss at Penn State, the Spartans came out sluggish in the first half against the Wildcats, trailing by as many as four twice.
But Drew Neitzel stepped in and went off for 13 consecutive points, bringing MSU back to lead by one.
Trailing 18-14, Neitzel drained a three from the left side. He followed that up with two layups.
North western’s Kevin Coble would answer both layups with a pair of jumpers. Northwestern still led 24-21.
But Neitzel would not be denied, draining a three from the right side with a defender in his face. He added another three next time down the court and MSU had a 27-26 lead.
“In that one stretch I thought he (Neitzel) was unbelievable,” said coach Tom Izzo. “It really saved us when we were struggling.”
MSU would scratch its way to a slim 35-29 halftime lead.
Neitzel scored 21 points while Raymar Morgan and Drew Naymick each added 10. Naymick nearly recorded a triple-double grabbing eight rebounds and six blocks.
Although MSU might have felt that week layoff in the first half, they got their legs back in the second. They increased their lead to eight to start the half and never trailed the rest of the way, cruising to a 70-55 win to improve to 20-3 overall and 8-2 in the Big Ten.
“I think with all this practice this week I think we were overanxious and too hyper in the beginning and it got us down a little bit but once we got back and Drew (Neitzel) got going we were all right.
But the Wildcats (7-14, 0-10) gave MSU a wake-up call, as they burned the Spartan defense in the first half with back-door layups and three-pointers.
“I think that a 15-point win is sometimes like a 25-point win against some teams,” said Izzo.
Coming into the game, Izzo expected his team to bounce back strong after last week’s loss.
“Coach really wanted to have a really good game out of everybody and so did we,” said Drew Naymick. “We would have liked to have a more perfect game but that’s what happened and we have to build on this and move on to a very difficult week.”
Knowing exactly how hard it is to play on the road in the Big Ten, especially against two teams ahead of them in the conference standings, Izzo knows he will have to get a lot out of his All-American guard next week.
“We’ll definitely play the meat of our schedule, a lot of it on the road and we are going to need Drew Neitzel,” said Izzo. “He’s going to have to score points and handle the physical play that he’s going to get.”
Izzo recorded his ninth 20-win season in 11 years with the win over the Wildcats, but the work is half done, as the Spartans have only three home games left and five games on the road.
Ten games into the conference season, MSU is just getting started, now facing the teams above them in the standings.
“It’s a huge stretch and for us to stay positive and get good seeding we are going to have to win these games,” said Raymar Morgan.
Their first test comes on Tuesday night at Purdue. The players like having only three days off between games, compared to an entire week layoff.
“I’d rather have a game every three days than have a week off,” said Goran Suton.
“It’s great for me, I like playing more games, less practice,” said Morgan.