In an unexpected dogfight with upstart Illinois near the halfway point of the Big Ten Conference schedule, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is looking for better production from his 14th-ranked Spartans.
That's why he shook up the lineup before Sunday's 70-52 win at Minnesota, inserting freshmen Rocket Watts and Malik Hall while putting Aaron Henry and Marcus Bingham in reserve roles.
Watts produced 10 points and solid defense in 28 minutes, while Hall was good for seven points and six rebounds over 20 minutes.
With last-place Northwestern coming to the Breslin Center in East Lansing on Wednesday night for another Big Ten contest, Izzo might stay with the new lineup for another game. But he said after the victory at Minnesota that Henry could make a real difference in his team.
"It wasn't scrambling; I'm trying to find a consistency button," Izzo said. "You have to have three guys if you're going to win big, and we have 2 1/2 at times. I love the way (Aaron) responded, but I'm not done trying to figure out how to keep him consistent."
Henry chipped in nine points, four rebounds and four steals in 25 minutes, although he coughed up four turnovers. But that was just a blip on a day where Michigan State (15-5, 7-2) allowed the Golden Gophers to make only 28.1 percent of their field goal tries.
And with senior point guard Cassius Winston (18 points, 8 assists) and forward Xavier Tillman (17 points, 10 rebounds) having their way with Minnesota, the Spartans could get by with an occasional mistake.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats' margin for error isn't quite as big. In fact, it's probably smaller than Muggsy Bogues. At 6-13 overall and 1-8 in the conference, they're plummeting toward 20 losses and a last-place finish.
Northwestern played well for most of Sunday night's 71-59 home loss to Ohio State, getting a game-high 20 points from Miller Kopp and 13 from Pat Spencer. But the Wildcats went from shooting 50 percent in the first half to 27 percent in the second half, dooming their chances of winning.
"Every time we had a chance to regain some momentum, we missed some free throws or some open shots," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. "And they made them. I feel like we're getting better in a lot of ways, but the results aren't showing. We just have to stay upbeat."
The Wildcats did return one of their better players in point guard Boo Buie, who scored 10 points on Sunday night. Buie missed the previous five games with an injury.
The teams met on Dec. 18 in Evanston, with Michigan State winning 77-72 despite a great game from Buie, who had 26 points and four assists. But the Spartans doubled up Northwestern on the boards, 48-24.
--Field Level Media