NCAA Basketball

Deep No. 4 Michigan State opens Big Ten at Northwestern

There will be a lot of shuttling of personnel in the Big Ten opener between fourth-ranked Michigan State and Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., on Sunday.

Both head coaches are still sorting out their rotations.

The Spartans have nine players averaging at least 11 minutes per game, while two others -- forward Julius Marble and guard A.J. Hoggard -- also warrant playing time.

"There's not a lot of separation (between) certain guys," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

"In the long run, it's going to benefit us. That's the way I'm looking at it. I'm going to let the players determine some of it and I'm going to have to do a good job with my staff in trying to separate them. But right now, there's a lot of (coaches) that would like to have 11 players out there. I'm going to try to enjoy that a little bit, even though it's a headache in some ways."

Michigan State (6-0) hasn't played since defeating in-state opponent Oakland 109-91 on Sunday. The Spartans have had five different players lead them in scoring.

They have four players averaging double figures, led by Joey Hauser (13.3 points, 10.0 rebounds per game). Rocket Watts (12.8), Aaron Henry (12.2) and Gabe Brown (10.7) have also delivered steady production.

Perhaps the biggest development during nonconference play was the return of Josh Langford, a starter for two seasons before foot issues sidelined him for the past two Big Ten seasons. Langford scored a season-high 13 points with five rebounds and four assists against Oakland.

"Josh Langford is as healthy as he's been in three years," Izzo said.

For the most part, the Spartans have been sharp offensively, making 48.3 percent of their field goal attempts. They've also dominated the boards, averaging 11 more rebounds than their opponents.

"The chemistry and camaraderie is so much better than I thought it would be at this point in time," Izzo said. "For all the negatives of COVID, that might be one of the positives. We just banded together."

Northwestern (3-1) has played only once since a one-point loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 9. The Wildcats defeated Division II Quincy 100-48 on Tuesday.

Opponents have been held to 33.7 percent shooting, but the Wildcats haven't faced a team like Michigan State. Northwestern's first two victories came against Arkansas Pine-Bluff (92-49) and Chicago State (111-66).

"You can play great and lose a game because of the level of competition," coach Chris Collins said of the Big Ten. "To have a fighting spirit every time you step out on the floor, that's something we want to continue to promote."

The Wildcats finished 3-17 in conference play last season, including five-point and 29-point losses to the Spartans.

Miller Kopp leads six players averaging double figures at 16.3 points, followed closely by Chase Audige (15.5).

Collins plans to use a nine-man rotation to get through the rugged Big Ten schedule.

"One of the things (needed) for us to be good has to be balance," he said. "That's a key with this group. We want to play with pace and play more possessions because we think we have more guys and we can utilize our depth."

--Field Level Media

Updated December 19, 2020

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