Michigan State coach Tom Izzo insists his team has yet to play its best basketball, though it's probably time it reaches its full potential with a tough slate looming.
Izzo hopes the 18th-ranked Spartans don't play down to their competition as they visit struggling Penn State on Wednesday night.
Michigan State's solid record (14-3, 3-1) has helped mask its overall inconsistency. It ranks last in the loaded Big Ten averaging 14.8 turnovers and has experienced some close calls against seemingly inferior teams, most recently pulling away late for a 66-56 win over Nebraska on Sunday.
The Spartans, who own a victory over then-No. 7 Kansas on Nov. 13, have won mainly due to a defense that ranks second in the conference in points allowed (57.7 per game) and opponents' field-goal percentage (37.6).
"This is the weirdest 14-3 (start) while playing a pretty good schedule that I've ever been involved with here," Izzo told the program's official website. "It's been a different year, and I still think we haven't played near our best yet."
Adreian Payne, who scored 14 points off the bench Sunday, said Michigan State has discussed its inability to have everyone give a solid performance in the same game.
Guards Gary Harris (1 for 11), Keith Appling (1 for 6), Denzel Valentine (1 for 5) and Travis Trice (1 for 4) shot a combined 15.4 percent from the field against the Cornhuskers, but Derrick Nix and Branden Dawson combined for 29 points on 12-for-16 shooting.
"The one thing we've been talking about as a team in our meetings is that we haven't had everybody play well in one game," Payne said. "Once we get that going, we're going to be a much better team, and the light will go on."
Izzo hopes that happens soon. After facing Penn State, the Spartans play four of their next five against ranked opponents and open that stretch Saturday at home versus No. 11 Ohio State.
They also visit Wisconsin (Jan. 22) and No. 2 Indiana (Jan. 27) before hosting No. 23 Illinois (Jan. 31) and No. 9 Minnesota (Feb. 6).
"I worry that maybe we're looking at (the records of the opposition)," Izzo said. "I guess we've got one more game and then we've got (four of the next five) against ranked teams or whatever. So, maybe we'll play better then, but we've got to play better Wednesday to win on the road."
Michigan State lost its last trip to Happy Valley, falling 66-62 on Jan. 8, 2011. It has split the last four meetings with the Nittany Lions (8-8, 0-4), who have lost four straight after falling 60-42 at Purdue on Sunday.
Penn State set a season low for points and shot a season-worst 25.9 percent from the field, the fifth time it has shot below 36.0 percent. It ranks last in the Big Ten and near the bottom of the nation with a dismal 38.9 field-goal percentage.
"It's only a matter of time before we start hitting shots again," said first-year coach Patrick Chambers, whose team lost senior and leading scorer Tim Frazier (16.3 points per game) to a ruptured left Achilles suffered Nov. 18 against Akron.
Southern Mississippi transfer guard D.J. Newbill is averaging 14.9 points, but he's shooting only 26.1 percent (12 for 46) over his last three games.
"We've done a great job of keeping the morale up," Newbill said. "Nobody's down, everybody's up. Our highs can't be too high, or lows can't be too low."
Payne and Dawson scored 12 points apiece in Michigan State's 77-57 home victory Feb. 8 in last season's only meeting.