EAST LANSING, Mich. — With backups like point guard Travis Trice, No. 9 Michigan State might be second to none when it gets back to full strength.
Northwestern coach Chris Collins certainly feels that way after the short-handed Spartans thumped his team 85-70 Thursday night at Breslin Center. Michigan State played without two starters, including senior point guard Keith Appling, but had no difficulty moving into a first-place tie in the Big Ten with rival Michigan.
“When healthy, I truly believe they’re the best team in the country,” Collins said. “They’re loaded, and I hope they can get healthy because you never want to go through a year where you say, ‘What if we had our guys?’ Hopefully, they’ll get their guys back because it would be exciting to see what they can become.”
They looked just fine without Appling, who missed his third straight game with a right wrist injury, and forward Branden Dawson, who sat out for the sixth consecutive game with a broken right hand.
Trice, who had 11 points and six assists, hasn’t committed a turnover since replacing Appling in the lineup. With Trice leading the attack, the Spartans (21-4, 10-2 Big Ten) shot 53.3 percent from the floor and had their highest-scoring output in regulation in conference play.
“It kind of shows our depth,” Trice said. “Due to injuries, it’s shown how talented our team is from top to bottom. When you can lose two or three of your starters and you don’t have any drop-off, that’s big. Our big thing now is just trying to get those guys back and keep this thing moving.”
Trice kept Michigan State’s offense at a high pace, and with Collins playing essentially a six-man rotation, Northwestern couldn’t keep up.
“He’s looking to be a true point guard first,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said of Trice. “That first half, we got the ball up the court so much better than we’ve been doing, and that was one of the keys, to get back to running. Travis is playing comfortable in that role.”
Michigan State senior forward Adreian Payne is back in his comfort zone after missing seven games with a foot injury. In his third game since returning, Payne posted team highs with 20 points and 14 rebounds. The Spartans outrebounded the smaller Wildcats 37-24.
“We’re undersized as it is, so when they had that big lineup in there, I thought they were physically dominant,” Collins said. “They’re learning how to play well together. They’re the standard of excellence in this league, so it was a great learning experience for our guys.”
Guard Denzel Valentine contributed 16 points and six assists for Michigan State, and guard Gary Harris scored 14 points.
Guard JerShon Cobb tied his season high with 22 points for Northwestern, which failed in its bid for a fourth straight Big Ten road victory. Forward Drew Crawford and guard Tre Demps added 18 points apiece.
Michigan State opened the second half with seven unanswered points, including five by Payne, for a 46-30 lead. Cobb responded with 10 points in the first 4:08 of the half, but Northwestern (12-13, 5-7) never recovered from the Spartans’ early outburst. Michigan State maintained a double-digit lead the rest of the way.
The teams ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the Big Ten in scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense entering the game, but it didn’t look that way in the first half.
Valentine had 11 points and five assists as the Spartans shot 47.1 percent and grabbed a 39-30 halftime lead. Northwestern shot 50 percent before the break but was hampered by six turnovers.
The Wildcats wound up shooting 46.2 percent for the game and giving the ball away nine times. The Spartans committed only seven turnovers.
NOTES: The Spartans won for the 46th time in the past 50 meetings. Michigan State won the first matchup this season in Evanston, 54-40. Northwestern’s most recent victory in East Lansing was a 70-63 triumph on Jan. 21, 2009. … Wildcats F Drew Crawford is one of three active Division I players with at least 1,700 points, 600 rebounds and 200 3-point field goals in his career, joining Creighton’s Doug McDermott and South Carolina Upstate’s Torrey Craig. … The Spartans’ 11.3 turnover average is the lowest since Tom Izzo became head
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