- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) - The way he was praising Chris Collins, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo almost sounded like a Northwestern recruiter.

He insisted the Wildcats are in good hands. They just didn’t quite have enough to take out the Spartans.

Gary Harris scored 14 points and No. 4 Michigan State beat Northwestern 54-40 on Wednesday night for its ninth straight win.

The preseason favorite to win the Big Ten, the Spartans (16-1, 5-0 Big Ten) continue to roll along, although it was hardly an easy night for them. They pulled away down the stretch against an outmanned team that did all it could to hang with one of the conference’s heavyweights, and in the end, Izzo came away impressed.

“This is a storybook thing,” he said in a nod to Collins‘ background. “It’s being done in the right way, and I just told him that. I said, ‘Hey, I’m proud of you.’ You kicked our butt.”

His story has been told and retold.

He’s a Chicago area product, the son of former NBA player and coach Doug Collins. He played at Duke and was a longtime assistant there, and now he’s in his first season at Northwestern, trying to get the school that hosted the first Final Four to the tournament for the first time.

The Wildcats came close under former coach Bill Carmody. Now, it’s Collins‘ turn, and there is clearly work to do, particularly on offense.

“We’re on the right track,” Collins said. “We’re a different team today than we were 10 days ago.”

The Spartans just weren’t about to be derailed, no matter how badly they struggled from the outside. They were 2 of 16 on 3-pointers with six airballs by coach Tom Izzo’s count. Harris missed all six from long range and Keith Appling was 0 for 3.

Harris did have four steals, and Appling managed to score 11 points.

Branden Dawson, fighting an illness, had 11 rebounds and three blocks, and the Spartans came away with the win even though they were missing one of their top players in Adreian Payne. The 6-foot-10 forward sat out his second straight game because of a sprained right foot and will have more X-rays on Friday.

Tre Demps did his best to keep Northwestern (8-10, 1-4) in the game, scoring 10 of his 12 points in the second half, but leading scorer Drew Crawford never got going. He managed just six points with Denzel Valentine guarding him most of the game. Point guard Dave Sobolewski missed his second straight game because of a concussion, and the Wildcats came up short after beating then-No. 23 Illinois on Sunday night to give new coach Chris Collins his first Big Ten victory.

“We’re really on the verge of something good,” Crawford said.

They haven’t knocked off a top five team since they took out fourth-ranked Michigan State on Jan. 27, 1979. But Izzo insisted Collins has them on the right path, even if it’s been a bumpy one.

The Wildcats are moving to a more free flowing offense after running the Princeton under Carmody, and it hasn’t been the easiest adjustment. But they see the progress even though they’ve failed to hit the 50-point mark the past two games.

“When you go from a Princeton offense to any offense, it’s like going from a wishbone to a pro set. Those poor kids,” Izzo said. “They’re going to get better each and every week because they’re learning a system that is apples to oranges. That’s not easy to do. But it’s what (Collins) should do because that’s the way he’s going to play.”

It was 44-37 when Alex Gauna banked in a shot to start a six-point spurt that gave the Spartans a double-digit lead.

Harris hit two free throws and stripped Demps, leading to two more foul shots for Appling that made it 50-37 with 4:59 left, and the Spartans hung on from there.

“(Northwestern) got loose balls,” Izzo said. “They did the things they’ve got to do. It’s a sign of a good young team that’s playing hard. It’s the sign of a good coach who’s getting them to play hard. I think there’s a lot of positive things here. We have a good team. We’re not playing real good right now.”

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