Derrick Nix's career at Michigan State has gone through its ups and downs, but the junior center has become a key figure off the bench this season, helping spark the team's recent run.
Nix and the 19th-ranked Spartans will go for their 10th straight victory overall and 62nd in a row at home over an unranked, non-conference opponent when they host UMKC on Monday night.
Although he started 16 games in 2009-10, Nix played sparingly for Michigan State (9-2) last season, starting only one game while missing the Maui Invitational, reportedly for issues regarding his weight.
However, a slimmed-down Nix has been a much bigger presence this season, helping provide depth inside to go along with leading scorer Draymond Green and sophomore center Adreian Payne.
Nix is averaging 18.2 minutes - 10 more than last season - while scoring in double figures in three of the last four games. He had a career-high 14 points and seven rebounds in a 74-60 win over Bowling Green on Saturday.
"I've been playing well. I've just got to keep playing up to my potential," Nix said. "A lot of people don't believe in me, but I don't care. I've just got to stay focused, and I feel like all my hard work is paying off."
Nix scored six points during Michigan State's 20-3 run early in the second half to take control after the Spartans' sluggish first half saw Bowling Green outrebound them 25-16 while scoring 16 second-chance points.
Despite a strong second half, Coach Tom Izzo thought his team regressed.
Michigan State opened the season with a pair of losses to top 10 teams North Carolina and Duke while shooting 42.1 percent over its first seven games. However, it had looked stronger in its previous three games, including a victory over a ranked Gonzaga team.
"One problem with being a veteran coach is that your nightmares and fears all come true," Izzo said. "We weren't sharp and we got outhustled for half of that game. We took a little step backward."
Among those who had a tough game was Green, who scored a career-high 34 points on 11-of-13 shooting in the win over Gonzaga, but had 12 on 4-of-10 shooting Saturday.
While he's known for scheduling a tough non-conference slate, Izzo might not have to sweat things out too long against UMKC (7-5), which lost to another Big Ten school in then-No. 11 Wisconsin 77-31 on Nov. 22 while shooting 20.8 percent.
The Kangaroos will enter this matchup with some momentum after beating Canisius 72-67 on Friday for their third straight victory. Trinity Hall had a career-high 27 points on 12 of 16 from the field while the rest of his teammates shot 12 of 48.
Canisius led by 10 midway through the first half, but UMKC pulled within 31-30 at the break, then shot 50 percent in the second half en route to its sixth win in seven games
To have any chance of being the first unranked non-Big 10 team to win in East Lansing since Toledo in 2002, UMKC will need a much better outing from leading scorer Reggie Chamberlain, who had 10 points on 3-of-12 shooting against the Golden Griffins.
Chamberlain came in having scored at least 20 points in six straight games while averaging 23.3 and shooting 50.6 percent.
This is the first meeting between these programs.