Northwestern looks to learn at Michigan State

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As far as lessons go, playing Michigan State at the Breslin Center is basketball’s version of an advanced-level course.

Northwestern coach Chris Collins would love to fast-forward through the learning process to the point where his five heralded freshmen are equal to the veteran Spartans they’ll play Sunday.

But that’s unrealistic. This group of young Wildcats players needs experience. How do they make the most of it Sunday?

“I don’t want them to play nervous,” Collins said. “I don’t want them to play afraid. I don’t want us to be on our heels. I want us to play hard. I want us to attack.”

As Northwestern battles the toughest conference schedule of any Big Ten team, the Wildcats are going to find themselves in seemingly insurmountable situations.

That was the case in an 81-58 loss to Wisconsin at home last Sunday. Collins said his team is too youthful to hang with the Badgers when they shoot the way they did.

The key, though, is to continue to instill a positive mindset in the players, reminding them that better days are ahead if they keep working.

“They were down about the game,” Collins said. “It’s not fun to get beat like that. But we’ve had a good week of practice, the spirits are good.

“You got to keep their spirits up. They’re young guys. They’re going to get frustrated. They have great pride in themselves, and they want to play well and that’s the job of my staff and I. We can’t get dispirited. Games like Wisconsin are going to happen. It’s part of the game, especially when you’re dealing with the kind of youth and inexperience that we have.”

That’s going to be a challenge all year.

After its game in East Lansing, Northwestern hosts Illinois, visits Michigan, hosts Ohio State and visits Maryland. The Wildcats won’t be favored in any of those games, much less any other conference games.

Still, it seems the Wildcats are buying what Collins is selling.

Freshman forward Vic Law, who hasn’t had a double-digit scoring effort since the victory against Mississippi Valley State on Dec. 14, said that he likes the Big Ten season better.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned as me and coach Collins work together is the preparation it takes day in and day out to be able to play in the Big Ten,” Law said.  “And play at a consistent level each and every game.”

Email: sgruen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SethGruen

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