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MSU Hoops Preview: Illinois

Michigan State takes on Illinois in Champaign on Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. Let's see what we're up against in the scheduled Big Ten rematch.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

After the 59-54 loss to Illinois in East Lansing two weeks ago...

It was just two weeks ago that Michigan State "on-the-bubble" talk was all the rage in both the national and local press. Three games, and three wins later, the bubble talk has, at least for the moment, ceased, and it may prove to be that ugly loss to Illinois at The Breslin which was the turning point of the Spartans' season.

Since the loss to Illinois, the Spartans have found a formula that has them playing their best basketball of the season. The formula is a defensive edge with some occasional anger, Tum Tum Nairn now in the starting line-up and Travis Trice now off the bench for a better rotation, Branden Dawson turning into a defensive and rebounding "monster," better offensive execution to include more transition opportunities and quick shots off of opposition makes-just like the good old days-and, what a difference two weeks can make for a Tom Izzo coached team.

Since we last saw them...

Illinois has played two games since their win over Michigan State-a 64-52 win in overtime against Michigan, in which Illinois came back from down by seven points with three minutes to play to force overtime, and a 68-49 loss to #5 ranked Wisconsin in Madison in which Wisconsin pulled away early in the second half and never looked back.

Since the game against Michigan State, senior guard Rayvonte Rice, Illinois' leading scorer, who was on "indefinite suspension" in the game against the Spartans, has returned. Rice has come off the bench in the past two game but played 27 minutes in the win over Michigan and 30 minutes in the loss to Wisconsin. Rice, who is returning from a broken left hand and then the suspension, had been out for a total of nine games and has so far struggled in his return. In his first game back, Rice shot only 2 or 7 for 4 points against U of M, and then against Wisconsin hit on only 4 of 12 from the field for 10 points. Illinois, so far, has seemingly struggled to adjust to having Rice back on court after his long absence, as Rice, though struggling, will still expect to take the majority of the Illini's shots.

In Rice's first game back, sophomore Malcolm Hill, who had become Illinois' go-to offensive player in Rice's absence, shot 4 of 16 against Michigan before settling in for a 5 for 9 game against Wisconsin. With Rice's return, Kendrick Nunn is taking 4 to 5 less shots per game so far which might not be the worst thing for Illinois, as Nunn, who has shot 42% on the season, was averaging over 14 shots per game in Rice's absence and shot a season-high16 times in the win over Michigan State, but only netted 14 points.

Part of the adjustment for the Ilini offense with Rice's return has been that Illinois' distribute-first point guard, sophomore Jaylon Tate, has had his minutes reduced by right around 10 minutes per game. Even with Tate on court, Illinois shooters have been too likely this season to launch up individual-effort, low percentage shots from long range, and against Wisconsin Illinois only assisted on 4 baskets while only scoring 49 points.

The last time out, Nnanna Egwu, Illinois' 6'11", 250-pound senior center, presented the biggest match-up problem for the Spartans. Egwu played well, and physically shut down both Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello holding them to a combined 5 points. Egwu also led the Illinois rebounding effort with 9 boards and scored his Big Ten season-high with 12 points. In the first game against the Spartans, Egwu hit two unexpected three pointers. As Egwu has only hit one other three pointer in Big Ten play, another six points from beyond the arc for the Illinois big man is unlikely. Egwu was on court for 39 minutes against the Spartans and getting Egwu off the court, in foul trouble, would be a huge advantage for MSU, as with sophomore Maverick Morgan as Egwu's primary back-up, Illinois lacks a second physical big body who would give the Spartans much trouble.

Illinois has started 6'7" freshman Leron Black for the past seven games, but Black, after a 15-point, 13-rebound game in his first start, has been inconsistent and has only provided the Illni with a total of 6 points and 7 rebounds over the past three games. For a scoring threat, Illinois will also bring senior guard Ahmad Starks off the bench and Starks, who is most likely to shoot from long distance, has scored as many as 19 points in a game in Big Ten play. 6'9" sophomore Austin Colbert has also been coming off the bench for Illinois and has been playing 8-12 minutes per game over the past 5 games in which he is averaging 2 points and 2 rebounds per contest.

Illinois...Illinois...wasn't that the game where we, (clank), couldn't make, (clank), a, (clanking), free throw?

Perhaps the most frustrating part about the 59-54 loss to Illinois two weeks ago was that Michigan State shot 7 for 18 from the free throw line in the five-point loss, and also that, down by three, Michigan State was given a chance to tie or go ahead from the free throw line when, with Travis Trice already at the free throw line, Jaylon Tate was assessed a technical foul on the first Trice free throw, which Trice made. This gave the Spartans three more free throws ,down by only two. Trice missed his second foul shot, and then Bryn Forbes missed the first of two technical free throws which left the Spartans down by one. As any Spartan fan knows, making free throws have been an issue for the Spartans this season, but since the Illinois game the Spartans have made 25 of their 37 free throws for an acceptable, though still not great, 67% from the free throw line. Illinois, on the other hand, leads the nation in free throw shooting percentage at 79% from the foul line which includes shooting 81% on their foul shots in Big Ten play.

The second time around, here's what I see...the Spartans will make adjustments and split the scheduled Big Ten series with Illinois.

The two biggest differences from the first match-up with Illinois is that the Spartans have seemed to have found their best game and Illinois is still in the process of adjusting to the return of Rayvonte Rice. The combination should favor Michigan State, even with both Rice and Malcolm Hill being hard-to-guard match-ups for the Spartans. Nnanna Egwu might be the most difficult match-up for the Spartans but this time out expect both Gavin Schlling and Matt Costello to be more aggressive, active, and physical in their match up with Egwu as Coach Izzo will demand nothing less. Expect a 6-point win with 70% from the free throw line for the Spartans in Champaign.