EVANSTON -- Gary Harris sees the wins piling up for No. 4 Michigan State. What he doesn't see is a finished product.
The Spartans hardly looked like one against Northwestern on Wednesday night. They still prevailed 54-40, with Harris scoring 14 points to lead them to their ninth straight victory.
"We know that we weren't playing as well as we can offensively," Harris said. "We had to do something defensively to kind of get us going. Get stops and get the lead. That's what we did. That's how we pulled away from them."
The preseason favorite to win the Big Ten, the Spartans (16-1, 5-0) continue to roll along, although it was hardly an easy night for them. They overcame a sluggish start and pulled away down the stretch even though they struggled in a big way 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.
"Frustrating for him," Izzo said. "Although I have to admit he actually had better suggestions on the bench than he had in the games. I appreciated him as an assistant. I thought he did a good job in the huddles, and sometimes guys grow when they don't play. They appreciate playing."
Izzo said Payne spoke in the locker room afterward.
"That kid's grown up so much. It's been a good year for him," Izzo added.
It's been a great one for Michigan State, too, even if this game was a bit ugly.
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.
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 set under former coach Bill 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.
"We're really on the verge of something good," Crawford said.
Coming off back-to-back overtime wins against Ohio State and Minnesota, Michigan State probably could have used a breather. The problem was, the Spartans had trouble sustaining a run.
They looked as though they were poised to put this one away after Travis Trice nailed a 3 and Matt Costello scooped in a reverse layup to make it 40-31 with 11:36 remaining. But Demps answered with a basket for Northwestern.
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."