Preview: Michigan State vs. Illinois

Your MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS vs. the ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
ASSEMBLY HALL, CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS
9:00 PM (ET), ESPN (DAN SHULMAN, DICK VITALE, ERIN ANDREWS).
ONLINE RADIO FEED: WJR

ENEMY BLOG: HAIL TO THE ORANGE

Illini bullets:

  • 15-8 (7-3).  Since we last saw Illinois, they've suffered losses to Purdue (home) and Northwestern (away), followed by three wins against Penn State (away), Indiana (home), and Iowa (away).
  • Illinois has cleaned up against the bottom of the conference (6-1) -- but as that number suggests, their schedule is quite back-loaded, and thus the gaudy-ish record is a bit misleading.  KenPom projects the Illini to go 2-6 in the last 8 games of the conference season.
  • KenPom ranks the Illini 55th in the country and 6th in the conference.  Their tempo-free profile is unremarkable: 64th in offensive efficiency, and 59th in defensive efficiency.  They're relatively stingy about turning the ball over (17.9 TO%, 38th nationally) and almost never have their shots blocked (4.5% offensive block rate, 1st nationally), but are very poor at getting to the foul line (31.1 FTA/FGA, 306th nationally).
  • 7 Illinois players average more than 17 minutes per game, and an 8th averages 13.9.  The Illini are lead in most offensive categories by Demetri McCamey, who averages 15.1 ppg and 6.2 apg.  Mike Tisdale, D.J. Richardson, and Mike Davis each average more than 10 ppg.  Richardson is additionally a major threat from long range (44% from behind the arc).  Freshman Tyler Griffey, who scored 12 points against MSU a few weeks ago, has also continued to emerge: he's started the last two games.

Three weeks ago, Illinois led for most of the first half at the Breslin Center.  Then, MSU seized control before halftime, and pulled away at the beginning of the second half.  The lead got as big as 23 before we sleepwalked through the last 8ish minutes of play, and ultimately emerged with a 10 point win.  KJ recapped thusly:

Perhaps the biggest positive from this game was how well the MSU interior players played against arguably the conference's top power forward/center combo.  Delvon Roe, Draymond Green, and Raymar Morgan combined for 36 points on 22 FG attempts (official box score is here).  On the other side, Mike Tisdale struggled with foul trouble, finishing with just 2 points and 1 rebound in 19 minutes.  And Mike Davis took 15 FG attempts to get to 11 points, as MSU denied him space to operate around the lane.  [ . . . ]

The perimeter defense was pretty solid, too.  The D.J. Richardson/Brandon Paul freshman guard combo was held to 10 points on a whopping 21 FG attempts.  Demetri McCamey showed flashes of brilliance, scoring 15 points on 10 FG attempts, but, after coming out and hitting the first two shots of the game, he never really imposed himself on the game.  [ . . . ]

After looking really out of sorts early on, Kalin Lucas turned things around to score 20 points on 12 FG attempts (8-9 at the line).  And Korie Lucious had his best game in quite a while, with 8 points, 4 assists, and zero turnovers in a career-high 27 minutes.  He came in early and played well at the point when Lucas was struggling; he threw a couple passes on the fast break that were stunning in their execution . . . Chris Allen (1-5 from the field) and Durrell Summers (3-10), meanwhile, never found any offensive rhythm.  Summers continues to be a force on the boards, though: 9 rebounds, 4 of them on offense.

Lucious's performance takes on even more meaning in light of his (presumed) expanded responsibilities on Saturday.  Of course, improved showings from Allen and especially Summers are even more necessary now.

Kalin Lucas's injury has been analyzed and analyzed and analyzed; the consensus seems that his injury isn't as bad as feared, but that there's virtually no way he'll play in Champaign.  If this was the national championship game, perhaps he'd pull a Mateen Cleaves and hobble out from the dressing room onto the court.  But at this point in the season, that's neither necessary nor desirable; the risk of further injury is too much to risk for a game we're fully capable of winning without him.  Nonetheless denying that the loss hurts is silly: this may not be the best Illini team we've ever seen, but Assembly Hall is a loud and menacing place, and navigating the environment without our point guard and leader is a tall order indeed.

As KJ noted, Illinois is the only team in the conference that starts two true post players (Tisdale and Davis), so on Saturday, the minutes gap may be plugged by Nix and Sherman.  As for the guard situation:

On offense, Korie Lucious will be the primary ball-handler every minute he's on the floor.  As much as the offense tends to look somewhat disjointed when Lucious is running the show, we should keep in mind that we're implicitly comparing him to one of the top 3 or 4 point guards in the country.  Lucious is a very talented playmaker who's put up serviceable numbers this season: .409/.333/.889 shooting line and a 2.4 assist/turnover ratio.  He's going to make mistakes; the trick will be bouncing back from those mistakes and keeping the team on as even a keel as possible.

Without a true third point guard on scholarship, Chris Allen will be the emergency point guard when Lucious needs a rest (the news reports confirm that Allen is practicing at the point).  That makes sense for a couple reasons: He's not shooting the ball well right now anyway (0-5 on 3-pointers in the last 3 games) and he's been handling the ball up top with Lucas running off the ball a fair amount of late.  Allen's assist-to-turnover ratio in conference play (2.7 to 1.7) actually compares favorably to Lucas' (3.8 to 2.5).  The struggle will be if opponents choose to pressure Allen in the back court.  In that case, we're likely to see a team approach to bringing the ball up.  Durrell Summers is probably Allen's equal in terms of pure dribbling ability.

The biggest problem on offense is going to be what happens when offensive possessions break down and someone needs to create a shot with the shot clock running down.  Lucious is just 29-68 on 2-point attempts in 51 career games.  Allen and Summers can take the ball to the hoop, but that usually only happens off pump fakes.  Asking them do it with an opposing defender squared up with them is a recipe for a charging call.

The ballhandling situation may be relatively manageable, as Illinois' defensive TO% is only 19.0, only good for 253rd in the country (although we did turn the ball over 23% of the time against them in East Lansing).  Lucas's absence presents an opportunity for Draymond Green to show his true versatility: he'll probably be called on to hit the mid-range jumper with more regularity, and additionally to be a major distributor on offense.  Furthermore, we rebounded 40% of our missed shots against the Illini last month, and a similar effort would go a long way toward a victory.  With Lucas out, we may struggle to get open looks at the basket.  What we lose in FG%, perhaps we can make up for in second and third chances.

MSU has won at Assembly Hall the last two seasons, including last season's Dance of Joy-inducing conference title-clincher.  Getting the third in a row won't be easy; the students will be extra loud given that 1) it's a night game, and 2) the presence of GameDay all afternoon will slowly lather them into a frenzy. 

KenPom, whose computer obviously knows nothing of Lucas's injury, predicts a 71-70 MSU victory.  This is probably the most important game of the season thusfar for Your Spartans: a loss, and we head back to East Lansing with the outright conference lead in jeopardy next Tuesday; a win would prove the team's resiliency and reaffirm our pole position for a Big Ten championship.  Time to win a big one.

P.S.: I'll hate you on Saturday, Orange Krush, but this is an epic, epic win.  Tip of the cap in your general direction.

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