Thursday night, in front of what should be a packed house in Pinnacle Bank Arena, No. 6 Michigan State (15-2, 6-0 Big Ten) will take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers (13-4, 3-3 Big Ten).
Before the two teams take to the hardwood and go to battle in Lincoln, here’s the tale of the tape.
The Spartans will walk into Thursday’s game on a 10-game win streak following a victory on the road against Penn State. With that win, Michigan State matched its program record with 18 consecutive regular-season Big Ten victories, and will be looking to make it 19 against the Cornhuskers.
However, the Spartans will take on Nebraska shorthanded. They will once again be without junior guard Josh Langford, and redshirt junior guard/forward Kyle Ahrens will miss his second straight game.
With them out of action, head coach Tom Izzo will have to rely on freshmen Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown. The duo played well against Penn State after seeing their minutes go up, with seven and three points, respectively.
The place where they will need to excel against Nebraska is on the defensive end, where they will be tasked with guarding some very tough guards in James Palmer Jr. and Glynn Watson Jr..
Along with the freshmen stepping up, Michigan State will need its two junior stars in Cassius Winston and Nick Ward to take control of the game.
Ward was excellent in the first half against Penn State, collecting 12 of his team-high 16 points and nine of his 11 rebounds. He slowed down in the second half due to foul trouble and the offense becoming a bit sloppy. The Spartans are going to need him to stay on the floor and dominate his matchup inside with Nebraska forward Isaac Copeland Jr..
Winston will also need to be better against Nebraska. The junior guard has looked slightly off in the last two games, possibly due to the increased defensive focus on him and the number of minutes he’s playing, which is 31 minutes a game.
Offensively, he started out slow against Purdue, but was able to get back into it, finishing with 23 points on 7-of-14 shooting. In the last contest against Penn State he visibly struggled, scoring just 11 points on 3-of-7 shooting and never really getting into a rhythm.
The area that is most alarming is his turnovers. In the last two games he had five and seven turnovers. While this is just a small sample size, it’s an area that can be make-or-break for the Spartans. Izzo and his staff will surely be monitoring it.
Like the Spartans, Nebraska returns home on a two-game win streak following a big win on the road against the Indiana Hoosiers. After starting out 1-3 conference play, the Cornhuskers have fought their way back to 3-3.
The offense is led by senior guard James Palmer Jr., who is averaging 19 points per game on 40 percent shooting from the field and 34 percent from 3-point range, while collecting 4.3 rebounds as well. Outside of him, the Cornhuskers have three other players averaging double-digit points per game.
Palmer Jr. is also the first-ever Cornhusker to be on the John Wooden Award midseason top 25.
Michigan State senior guard Matt McQuaid will have to put on a similar defensive performance to the one he had against Purdue’s Carsen Edwards to slow down Palmer Jr..
Although the offense is potent, the main thing the Spartans will have to contend with is the rabid Nebraska defense. Head coach Tim Miles has his team executing a man-to-man and 1-3-1 zone that can absolutely stifle opponents. They hold teams to just 60.8 points per game and recently held No. 25 Indiana to a season-low 51 points.
If the Cornhuskers work on the defensive end, just like Florida did earlier in the season against Michigan State, they could keep their win streak alive and get above .500 in the Big Ten.
It’s game time
Both teams are coming in on a hot streak and will look to keep it going. Michigan State is one of the best teams in the country behind the strength of Winston and Ward, but with them being short handed, Palmer Jr. and the Cornhuskers could pull off an upset on their home floor. All signs point to this being a great contest.
Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. ET and will be broadcasted on Fox Sports 1.