September 30, 2014

Michigan State's usual dominance on defense has disappeared over its last two games, and so have the wins.

Eager to begin a new week, the 11th-ranked Spartans figure to be challenged again Wednesday night against a surging Nebraska team that's rolling offensively during its best stretch of the season.

Among the top 10 nationally in field-goal percentage defense and preventing the 3-point shot, Michigan State has struggled in both areas during its first losing streak of the season. After then-No. 16 Iowa went 10 of 22 from beyond the arc to complete a season sweep with Thursday's 76-59 victory in East Lansing, the Spartans were hurt by 28 fouls in a frustrating 77-76 last-second defeat at Wisconsin on Sunday.

The Badgers' 29-of-36 performance from the free-throw line was the difference in a game where Michigan State outshot Wisconsin and owned a 35-25 rebounding advantage.

"We didn't execute the things we had to do down the stretch," coach Tom Izzo said. "We had some things we wanted to do and we didn't do them. It's not very often that you outshoot a team from the field, from the 3-point line, almost from the free-throw line - of course we didn't have as many - turn the ball over nine times and lose. One of the strangest games I've ever coached in."

Now three games back of first-place Indiana and 2 1/2 behind the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten, Michigan State (16-3, 3-3) is suddenly in a near must-win scenario with a showdown with No. 7 Maryland looming Saturday.

The task may not be easy against improving Nebraska (11-8, 3-3), which has shot 54.2 percent and averaged 84.0 points in consecutive wins over Rutgers, Minnesota and Illinois. The Cornhuskers held those three to an average of 60.7 points and 37.9 percent shooting, including 22.5 on 3-pointers.

Winless on the road in Big Ten play last season, Nebraska earned its second straight by outrebounding Illinois 42-24 and owning a 34-20 advantage in the paint in Saturday's 78-67 victory.

That's been a common theme during the Cornhuskers' streak, as they've outscored opponents 126-66 in the lane and had at least 18 more rebounds in all three wins.

"We're a team of slashers,'' coach Tim Miles said. ''It's what we do.''

The trend will be tough to continue, as the Spartans have been outperformed on the glass just twice and are tied for third in Division I with a plus-12.5 rebounding margin. Matt Costello is averaging a league-high 11.0 rebounds in Big Ten play and had 13 along with a career-high 18 points against Wisconsin.

Denzel Valentine added 23 points and seven rebounds in the star senior's best outing in three games since returning from a knee scope.

The Spartans, who last lost three straight conference games Feb. 19-Mar. 3, 2013, won't have point guard Tum Tum Nairn for a second straight game due to plantar fasciitis.

Nebraska seeks to end a 10-game skid against ranked opponents and record its first win over a Top 25 team on the road since a 60-51 victory at No. 9 MSU in February 2014. The Cornhuskers also edged the Spartans 79-77 in Lincoln last Jan. 24, the most points Michigan State allowed in a non-overtime Big Ten game last season.

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