Michigan State's last meeting with Northwestern lived up to its billing as a defensive battle and ended with a ninth straight win for the Spartans during an 18-1 start.
Expectations this time aren't much different, though the circumstances for the favorite certainly are. The No. 9 Spartans have dropped three of five and will try to avoid losing back-to-back games for the first time this season when they host the Wildcats on Thursday night.
Northwestern (12-12, 5-6), meanwhile, has won its last three Big Ten road games.
Despite the two-week stumble, Michigan State (20-4, 9-2) remains a half-game back of Michigan for the conference lead as things begin heating up in the season's final month.
"We're down to seven games in the regular season - and it's hard to believe," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "With four home games, we've got to take advantage."
Izzo's team suffered its second league loss Sunday, 60-58 at Wisconsin, and though they relinquished the Big Ten lead on a last-second shot by the Badgers, it didn't come without a certain amount of encouragement.
Center Adreian Payne, who missed seven games with a right foot sprain before playing limited minutes Thursday in a win over Penn State, started and scored a game-high 24 points in 32 minutes.
That didn't stop Izzo from faulting his team's defensive effort against the Badgers, who connected on 9 of 23 from 3-point range.
"Some guys in there that couldn't guard this table," Izzo said.
The return of Payne, however, has been curbed by the limited progress of Keith Appling, who could miss a couple weeks due to a right wrist injury. The team's second-leading scorer (15.0 points per game) has missed the last two games and won't play this week against Northwestern or Nebraska.
Travis Trice figures to continue filling in at point guard. He's averaged 9.0 points, 4.5 assists and 4.0 rebounds without a turnover in consecutive starts.
Trice also started in a three-guard lineup the last time out against the Wildcats, helping the Spartans to a 54-40 win at Northwestern on Jan. 15.
Gary Harris led all scorers with 14, while Northwestern reserve Tre Demps had a team-high 12 points. Wildcats leading scorer Drew Crawford was held to six on 1-of-8 shooting, and the team matched a season-low 13 field goals on 46 attempts.
Northwestern followed wins at Wisconsin and Minnesota with Saturday's 53-49 home loss to Nebraska. JerShon Cobb led the Wildcats with 14 points and Crawford added 13, but they shot 37.0 percent - something they've made into a habit.
Northwestern is averaging a Big Ten-low 53.8 points per game in conference play.
"We don't have the firepower to run away from teams, so we're going to play close games," coach Chris Collins told the school's official website.
"That's why we have to take care of the ball. That's why we have to get good shots. That's why, when we get fouled, we have to make free throws. If we get a layup, we have to make it. And when we get our open shots, you're not going to make them all. But we have to make our fair share."
The matchup features the top two defensive teams in Big Ten play. Michigan State is first in opponent field-goal percentage (39.4) and second in opponent scoring (64.2), while Northwestern is second in field-goal percentage (40.1) and first in scoring (62.4).
Michigan State has won 18 of the last 20 meetings dating to February 2003.
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