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Preview: Northwestern at Michigan State

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Your Michigan St. Spartans vs. the Northwestern Wildcats

Jack Breslin Student Events Center - East Lansing, Mich.

Feb. 13, 2014, 7 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network

Online Streaming: BTN2Go

Radio: Spartan Sports Network

Life without Keith Appling and Branden Dawson continues on Thursday, when MSU begins a stretch of three very winnable games with or without two of its best players before heading to Ann Arbor on Feb. 23. Entering Thursday, Northwestern is 12-12 overall, 5-6 in Big Ten play and -- as usual -- about as easy to predict as the weather.

After a not-so-great non-conference performance, Northwestern started conference action with losses to Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa before beating Illinois. That's when the Wildcats ran into the Spartans for the first time this year on Jan. 15, and Michigan State came away with an ugly 54-40 win in the second game of Adreian Payne's injury hiatus.

Since then, Northwestern has won four of six, including three straight road games. The most impressive win came at the end of January, when the Wildcats managed to knock off Wisconsin 65-56 at the Kohl Center, thanks in large part to Drew Crawford's career-high 30 points. And that's where we get to the straw that stirs the drink.

In his 10th fifth and final year of eligibility, Crawford has been the lifeblood for Northwestern. He's been the leading scorer in 10 of the Wildcats' 12 wins and just three of their 12 losses. Basically, if Crawford is able to score, Northwestern has a chance. The only argument against that would be that the Wildcats lost by at least 21 points in those losses in which Crawford was the high scorer (NC State, Michigan, Iowa).

There's no arguing, though, that head coach Chris Collins relies heavily on Crawford, who averages 38.7 minutes a game in Big Ten play (first in the league) and uses 26.9 percent of Northwestern's possessions, which ranks eighth in the conference. He's sixth in the Big Ten in scoring (15.8) and 11th in rebounding (5.6).

With the way Crawford carries the Wildcats, it's no surprise the Spartans won by 14 despite their lowest scoring output of the season in the teams' previous meeting by taking the 6-foot-5 guard completely out of the game. Crawford scored just six points on 1-for-8 shooting (0-for-4 from 3) and turned ball over five times without recording an assist on Jan. 15.

Tre Demps led Northwestern with 12 points in that first game, and he's been the Wildcats' second option all season in terms of usage (23.6 percent). The sophomore guard is actually third on the team in scoring (9.9 points per game in conference play) behind senior guard JerShon Cobb (10.4 ppg).

In case it wasn't already clear, Northwestern is not going to pull off an upset on Thursday by getting in a shootout and outscoring MSU. The Wildcats are actually the worst offensive team in the Big Ten, scoring just 0.86 points per possession with the second worst eFG% in the conference (37.7). However, Northwestern (1.0) can definitely hang its hat on defense, as MSU (0.97) is the only conference team allowing fewer points per possession.

We saw how lost MSU's offense can be without Appling on Sunday, but considering seven-footer Alex Olah is the only Wildcat who plays more than 10 minutes and stands taller than 6-foot-7, Payne's presence should make a difference in the rematch. Dawson's rebounding ability will continue to be missed, though, against a team that gives up an offensive rebound roughly 30 percent of the time. Northwestern isn't going to hurt anybody on its own offensive glass with an 18.6 OR%, but that's largely because the Wildcats also won't let you score much in transition, which MSU found out back in January, when the Spartans scored just eight fastbreak points.

With Appling out and Northwestern's tendency to ugly up the game, seeing a repeat of the first meeting wouldn't be a surprise. Even without Appling and Dawson, MSU is still by far the more talented squad, but the Wildcats aren't intimidated by anything, as evidenced by their consecutive road wins at Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota.