Yesterday I had a discussion with Joe from Hail to the Orange about whose team had flopped harder during the Big Ten season. I think the answer to that question is painfully obvious but that's not to say Illinois hasn't had its share of turbulence throughout the conference schedule. After their victory over MSU the Illini went 3-4, with losses to Ohio State and Purdue (at home, but not bad losses), at Northwestern (iffy) and at Indiana (GUH). Illinois is now 7-6 in the conference and needs three wins in the next five games to feel secure about its NCAA chances. Two are eminently winnable (home against Indiana and Iowa), two are tall orders (at Ohio State and Purdue), and there's this game, which doesn't have a clear favorite (Kenpom predicts a one-point Illini win, no Vegas line has been released yet).
After the jump, we'll revisit what went wrong for Michigan State during the first Illini battle, and what to look out for this time around.
Here's the four factors chart from the last game:
Illinois was uncannily accurate in the first half from behind the arc (6-9). When their heat wore off in the second half (2-8 from three, 42.8% FG shooting) the Spartans's offense went bankrupt, going 9-32 from the field. Demetri McCamey was the consummate point guard with 11 assists to go with 15 points. The Illini starters didn't do the bulk of the damage however, as two bench players had a couple of their best performances in college. Sophomore Brandon Paul was darn near unconscious from three, going 4-6 on his way to 20 points. Freshman Jereme Richmond nearly doubled his points average with 14 points, getting almost anything he wanted around the rim. Hot shooting was the reason Illinois won this game, as they were thoroughly outrebounded and MSU hung onto the ball quite well.
So why are the Illini a bubble team? The main reason is free throws, or to be more specific, Illinois' victors are taking more. In the losses during their 3-4 stretch all of the Illini's opponents have a higher free throw rate. Sometimes the difference is slight (less than 10% against Indiana), and other times it's more pronounced (more than a 35% difference against Ohio State). These performances were not anomalies but rather part of a season trend, as Illinois ranks 312th in the NCAA in free throw rate -- curious for a team that only takes 30.6% of its field goal attempts from three (that percentage is 233rd in the NCAA, by the way).
After reviewing the data, I don't see anything radically different MSU needs to do in this game to win except make more of its shots and hope the Illini don't catch fire again. ESPN College GameDay will be at the Breslin Center and home teams are 4-1 when Rece, Hubert, Digger and Jay visit. The Purdue-MSU tilt showed that crowds can be significantly rowdier when ESPN is in full effect in the building; I know the Izzone will be energetic, hopefully the rest of the audience will follow suit (but I'm not optimistic). I've hesitated to use the term "must-win" all season, but this game has the hallmarks of a game the Spartans need to keep the NCAA tournament streak alive. Show up or shut up time is finally upon is, and I strongly hope it's the former.