While Michigan State is still missing a couple key pieces, it’s safe to say Adreian Payne is back at full strength.
Payne tries to lead the No. 9 Spartans to a fifth consecutive win over Nebraska as these Big Ten foes meet in East Lansing on Sunday.
Playing in his third game since missing a month with a foot injury, Payne had 20 points and a season-high 14 rebounds in Thursday’s 85-70 win over Northwestern. The star senior has scored a combined 44 in the last two games.
"He’s not any worried about his foot at all," coach Tom Izzo said. "I’m amazed, though, at his conditioning. Here’s a kid that two or three years ago couldn’t get up and down the floor more than 15 or 18 minutes a game. Now he’s carrying our team. I’m proud of him. I’m happy for him."
The Spartans figure to feed Payne early and often again with Keith Appling (15.0 points per game) and Branden Dawson (10.2) still out. Sophomore Denzel Valentine, who has scored in double figures in six of the last eight games, should also continue to play a big role.
Valentine finished with a career-high 16 points, six assists and five rebounds against the Wildcats. The Spartans (21-4, 10-2) are 18-1 when Valentine scores at least five compared to 3-3 when he doesn’t.
"When I’m scoring the basketball, it really adds something to this team," said Valentine, averaging 8.0 points." If I can score from eight on up, we’re a different team."
Gary Harris added 14 points while Travis Trice scored 11 on Thursday. Michigan State outrebounded the Wildcats 37-24 and shot 53.3 percent, going 11 of 21 from 3-point range.
"When healthy, I truly believe they’re the best team in the country," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. "They’re loaded. I hope they can get healthy."
The Spartans have defeated the Cornhuskers by an average of 15.0 points in their four meetings since Nebraska joined the Big Ten. In the last matchup, Payne had 15 points and 14 boards, and Harris scored 14 in Michigan State’s 73-64 victory in Lincoln last Feb. 16.
Nebraska (13-10, 5-6) is seeking a season high-tying third consecutive win and fifth in six games after beating Illinois 67-58 on Wednesday. Sophomore Shavon Shields led the way with a career-best 33 points and Terran Petteway added 16.
"It’s big," Shields said of the victory. "We just need to keep staying together, keep protecting the home court and start getting big wins on the road. … We’re really coming together. We just need to keep it rolling."
Shields is averaging 14.6 points while shooting 48.6 percent at home, much higher than his road marks of 8.9 and 39.7. He scored 19 and pulled down a career-high 13 boards last February against Michigan State.
Nebraska opened 0-7 as the visiting team before winning 53-49 at Northwestern last Saturday. The Cornhuskers have dropped 42 of 43 road matchups versus Top 25 teams, including 21 in a row by 19.1 points per contest.
The Spartans have won 17 straight home games against unranked conference foes by an average of 15.3 points.
The Cornhuskers rank last in the Big Ten with an opponent field goal percentage of 43.9, but limited the Fighting Illini to 36.7 percent.
"We’re just getting a little better each time," Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. "This was a good win."