Northwestern's upset win over Illinois was certainly something to celebrate, but now it's time, as Chris Collins put it, to come back down to reality.
For their next trick, the Wildcats will try to do exactly what they did to the Illini against the fourth-ranked Michigan State Spartans on Wednesday night in Evanston. And that's not going to be easy.
The Illini had a historically bad shooting night against the Cats on Sunday, with a 28.1-percent night counting as the lowest by a Big Ten team against Northwestern since 1999. And, though the Cats played terrific defense in that game, the Spartans are not the Illini. The Spartans are a national-title contender and rank second in the Big ten in scoring with 82.2 points per game. Northwestern beat Illinois scoring just 49 on Sunday.
So not only is there a massive challenge coming to Welsh-Ryan Arena wearing green and white, but there's a challenge in not getting hung up on that one win when the goal is to get so many more.
"It's really hard to win in this league, and the one thing I want our guys to do is I want them to have fun and I want them to enjoy successes," Collins said at practice on Tuesday. "You get down when you lose and it gets really tough, and when you do do something really well we want to enjoy it. But we can't be giddy about it. The next step for us is to use it as a positive momentum-builder. We had four really tough games in a row: heartbreaker to DePaul, and then three teams really kicked our butts the first three games (of the Big Ten schedule). So we played really well, we won, and now we have to use that as a confidence-builder. It doesn't get any easier. You play Illinois and you enjoy it for a couple hours, and then you ask the assistants who's up next and they say Michigan State. You come back down to reality."
The Spartans are having another remarkable campaign under head coach Tom Izzo, with just one loss to their name and an unblemished mark thus far in conference play. Even while battling injuries, they've continued to look great.
The Spartans have prevailed in back-to-back overtime games, including one against Ohio State in which the Spartans pulled off a win in an instant-classic meeting that featured the Buckeyes erasing a 17-point second-half lead to force the extra period. But the best part of that night for Izzo's bunch was the contributions of banged-up seniors Adreian Payne and Keith Appling. Payne wasn't supposed to play in the game with foot pain, but he muscled through it. Now Izzo is saying Payne won't be back in the Michigan State lineup until he's fully recovered. He's not expected to play Wednesday, but then again, he wasn't expected to play vs. the Buckeyes.
"I think we have to prepare for those guys to play. You never want to be surprised by anything," Collins said. "The good thing about their team is maybe they can afford to take their time a little bit with Payne or whoever it may be because they have a lot of good players. The one thing you know about their team is they're going to play really hard, they're going to play with great intensity, they're going to be really tough and ready to play. You have to match those things before you even talk about any strategy, and it's a testament to what coach Izzo's built over a lot of years."
While Collins wants his Cats to move on from the win over Illinois, he also wants to use it as a building block. It's a careful balance that must be struck, though his players seem up to the task.
"I think everybody's moved on from the Illinois game," Northwestern guard Tre Demps said Tuesday. "We're locked in, ready to prepare for Michigan State. Obviously it's a top-five team in the country, but I think we're really just looking forward to this opportunity. It's a great opportunity for us to just fight. At the end of the day, that's really all we can do, just give it our all and prepare like we did against Illinois.
"There's also the other end of the spectrum where we don't want to relax and be giddy because we beat a top-25 team. We want to come in here and know that we can beat another top-25 team. Obviously Michigan State's a great team and it's going to take a lot to beat them, but we feel that we have the personnel and the preparation to do that."