GAME NOTES: The ninth-ranked Michigan State Spartans will close out a two-game homestand at the Breslin Center on Sunday afternoon when they welcome the Nebraska Cornhuskers to East Lansing for a Big Ten Conference matchup.
Although Nebraska sits with a decent 13-10 overall record, it has shown a large disparity between its success at home (11-1) compared to on the road (1-7). The Cornhuskers are on the upswing of late with back-to-back wins, most recently downing Illinois at home on Wednesday night, 67-58, to improve to 5-6 in league play.
Michigan State has been one of the nation's best all season long at 21-4, but it has battled through injuries in recent weeks and has gone just 3-3 over its last six contests. The Spartans improved to 11-2 at the Breslin Center and 10-2 in the Big Ten after they easily dismissed Northwestern on Thursday, 85-70.
The Spartans have doubled up the Cornhuskers in the all-time series, 12-6, which includes wins in four straight meetings.
The Cornhuskers appeared in trouble early in the second half of their latest game trailing Illinois by six, but they promptly ripped off an 10-0 run and held the lead the rest of the way en route to the nine-point victory. They shot 44.2 percent from the field, compared to just 36.7 percent for Illinois, and they cashed in with their opportunities at the foul line as well (24- of-27). Shavon Shields was the catalyst with a career-high 33 points, knocking down all 15 of his tries at the stripe. Terran Petteway was solid as well with 16 points.
Nebraska's strength on the season has been its stellar play on the defensive end of the floor, as it holds opponents to less than 44 percent field goal shooting for 66.5 ppg, but unfortunately its offensive effort (67.1 ppg) is just barely good enough to support it. Petteway is the team's top performer with 17.4 ppg on 44.6 percent shooting from the field and 82.4 percent at the free-throw line to go with 5.2 rpg. Shields' latest explosion allowed him to improve to 12.0 ppg and his 5.3 rpg are a team-high, but no one else nets in double figures.
The Spartans opened up a nine-point halftime lead over Northwestern last time out and their advantage was never smaller than that in the second stanza as they cruised to the 15-point victory. They shot 53.3 percent from the field on the evening, including a red-hot 11-of-21 from 3-point range, and they earned a 37-24 advantage in the rebounding battle. Adreian Payne led the way with 20 points and 14 rebounds. Denzel Valentine (16 points) and Travis Trice (11) handed out six assists and piece, while Gary Harris poured in 14 points.
Few teams in the country have displayed better all-around production this season than Michigan State, which shoots 47 percent from the field for 78.0 ppg while allowing just 65.0 ppg on 38.9 percent shooting, and it lives comfortably in terms of its rebounding (+4.8) and turnover margins (+2.2). It has been without its full arsenal of weapons of late, however, as Keith Appling (15.0 ppg, 4.9 apg) is out with a wrist injury and Brendan Dawson's (10.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg) season is in jeopardy with a broken hand. One mainstay has been Gary Harris, who scores a team-best 17.4 ppg to go with 2.0 spg. Payne (16.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg) missed time with a foot injury a few weeks back and his return has been crucial. Denzel Valentine has stepped up for the shorthanded squad with 8.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 3.9 apg.
Michigan State's long-term title prospects are still murky considering its injury concerns, but at home against the inconsistent Cornhuskers, the Spartans should have no problem earning their 22nd win.
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