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Michigan State Basketball Hoops Preview: Illinois

Time to take the "Fighting" out of Illini!

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

[Editors note: Please welcome Eric Pierzchala, one of new contributors to TOC! Eric will be a huge help with basketball coverage and some MSU baseball stuff over the summer. Enjoy the preview! - Joe]

Michigan State-Illinois Preview

This Saturday afternoon at The Breslin, (12 noon to be exact), our Spartans meet up with the John Croce-coached Fighting Illini who, after beating Rutgers 66-54 on Tuesday, are coming off of their first back-to-back wins since conference play began. Let's take a look at what our Green and White guys are up against in 15-8 on the season, 5-5 in conference play, Illinois.

Wait, I thought Illinois had...?

Illinois was dealt a significant blow to its season before they'd even played a game this year when senior point guard Tracy Abrams sustained a torn ACL during a pre-season skill workout. Abrams, who averaged 10.7 ppg and 3.2 assists per game as a junior, will return next season for his final year of eligibility.

Illinois may also be without senior guard, and their leading scorer and rebounder, Rayvonte Rice. Rice, who is averaging 17.2 ppg and 6.9 rebounds per game, is in the process of returning from a broken hand but was suspended "indefinitely" by third year Illini coach John Groce before last Saturday's game versus Penn State for an undisclosed issue.

For yet another maybe, Illinois might also be without junior guard Aaron Cosby who has also been "indefinitely" suspended. Cosby, a Seton Hall transfer who is averaging 7.8 points per game but on 29% shooting, has been out with an eye injury, and though medically cleared to practice, Cosby, perhaps due in part to the suspension, has yet to see court time since being cleared to play.

So, who will be playing against our Spartans on Saturday?

With injuries and suspensions, Illinois has eight scholarship players available but that hasn't stopped them from winning three of their last four Big Ten games with wins over Purdue, Penn State, and Rutgers at home, but a loss to Indiana on the road.

Malcom Hill, a 6'6" sophomore guard, has stepped up and played his most productive basketball of the season in the eight games since Rice went out. Hill, perhaps the most improved player in the Big Ten this season, has averaged 17.5 ppg since Rice's injury to go with 4.8 rebounds per game. Last week, Hill earned a Big Ten Co-Player of the Week honor, an award he shared with Branden Dawson, by scoring 27 points in a 60-58 win over Penn State-a performance which included Hill scoring the game-winning basket for the Illini' with less than five seconds to play.

Kendrick Nunn, a 6'3" guard, has been Nunn-too-shy to shoot the ball since Rice went out and has averaged 14 shots per game in the past seven games without Rice on the court. Nunn's volume shooting has led to an average of 17.7 points per game over his last seven games.

Senior guard Ahmad Starks gives the Illini some scoring off the bench. In his first season playing at Illinois after sitting out a season after transferring from Oregon State, Starks has averaged 7.5 point per games but the 5'9" guard has accumulated his scoring average while shooting only 32% from the field. Starks was tried as the starting point guard after the Tracy Abrams injury but has since been moved back to the bench in favor of sophomore Jaylon Tate.

Tate, a 6'3" guard, is a distribute-first point guard and has effectively taken over the majority of the point-guard minutes. Over the last five games Tate has dished out 31 assists to only 6 turnovers. Tate is not a huge scoring threat but has begun to provide the Illini with a bucket or two per game and has shown the ability at times to get into the paint and get to the free throw line.

Freshman forward Leron Black was inserted into the starting line-up against Purdue four games ago and put up an impressive 15 points and 13 rebounds in the Illinois 66-57 win. Black has grabbed eight or more boards six times this season, but only picked up two rebounds in 21 minutes against Rutgers on Tuesday. The 6'7" forward is definitely a key player to watch in this game, and, in the future, as Black provides Illinois' primary down-low scoring threat.

Illinois tries to hold down the paint with two big bodies in 6'11", 250-pound senior Nnanna Egwu, and 6'10", 250-pound sophomore Maverick Morgan. Egwu plays the bulk of the big man minutes, with over 27 minutes played per game, and averages 5.4 rebounds, 7.1 points, and 1.8 blocked shots. Egwu has scored 11 points in a game twice in Big Ten play but only averages 6 field goal attempts per game. Maverick Morgan can step out and hit an 8-12 foot face-up jumper but has not provided much of a rebounding presence in averaging only 1.7 rebounds per game.

With the three Illinois players out, in the feel-good sport's story of last week, Coach Groce activated Ryan Schmidt who was serving as the Illini's team student manager. Hopefully the Spartans can blow the Illini out and get Schmidt some DI playing time.

Look Out! Hey I'm Here! Zel! You know, I once heard from a very disappointed coach that a lack of communication equals a lack of effort.

John Groce will switch up his defenses and we're likely to see both a 2-3 zone and man-to-man but one of the Illini's strengths on D is their ability to double team ballhandlers who are in vulnerable positions near the sideline. With quick feet and hands as a team, and just enough guard size, the Illini strategy can prove effective and can net that all-important 4 to 8 points off-of-turnovers per game. The Spartans will need to communicate and make the effort to move into a better ball-receiving position in order to help out the dribbling-challenged Forbes, Schilling, Costello, Marvin Clark Jr., (if he plays) Javon Bess, (if he plays as he's still not 100% with those ankles), and sometimes Dawson when that Illini pressure comes at them near the three-point line, and hey, Zel...let's stay loose but not try to get all fancy-pants-and-Harlem-Globetrotter-high-socks with that dribbling against these guys!

Hey, maybe they can shoot our free throws for us?

As all us Spartan fans know well, (and as was so nicely broken down by TheOnlyColors own Matt McIntyre earlier this week), Michigan State has struggled when they get to the free throw line where they are only shooting 63% on the season.

Illinois, on the other hand, is shooting 79% from the free throw line which currently ranks them at second in free throw percentage in the nation.

Illinois also doesn't turn the ball over often and only averages 10 turnovers per game-a number which currently ties them for 8th best in the nation in turnover per game average, but then, Illinois doesn't move the ball that well either-especially so as they are without their senior point guard, Abrams. The lllini can sometimes be easy to defend as they will too often take one-on-one, poor percentage three pointers that would drive both Coach Izzo and the basketball analytics crowd crazy, but Nunn and Hill can shoot, and even Starks can get hot. Illinois averages 7.8 three-point makes per game which ranks them 3rd in the Big Ten behind Indiana and Michigan, so, expect them to fearlessly bomb away.

Just Blowing Bubbles

Some in the national media took our overtime win over a depleted Michigan University (we thank new maybe UCLA or maybe Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith for that), as a sign that this year's Spartans team is "un-worthy" of an 18th consecutive Tournament appearance. Writers like Sports Illustrated's Michael Beller are trying to create a Mitch-Albom-esque human-interest story that aims to bring the world to tears in trying to make this year's Spartans' current seeming on-the-bubbleness, with 7 losses and no truly significant wins, into a greater story than it is, but...

Fans of Sparta! Do not be fooled!

Sure, we can't just go and count up wins til we get to twenty-one (which would reserve us an invitation to the Big Dance to see who plays Kentucky on some Monday night in April), but, despite our Spartans' struggles and inconsistency we're still, honestly, really, not that bad, and in my opinion we are a top-32 team-(and for the current time even Bracketologist Joe Lunardi agrees with me).

To make the tournament now you can be, I suppose, technically, within the top 50 teams and being in a major conference of course helps-N.C. State (ACC) and Xavier (diminished Big East-which I hope they rename the Nine Catholics and a Butler Conference) were the play-in 12th seed game last season, and hey, Syracuse just announced they're out, (so, one bubble team down).

Listen guys, we're still good...

We have a strong chance to win the next two games, (with Northwestern up next), and be 8-3 in the conference, and a strong chance to pull off a mild upset over Ohio State's band, (D'Angelo, Two Freshman, and the Still Undevelopeds), when they appear in East Lansing. Michigan University, at Ann Arbor, is never exactly fun but with their injuries, and having now seen what they got, I think we got this this time. If we can win those next four the silly talk stops and we don't even have to worry so much about the strength of our Izzo schedule which put us in a position to be on the wrong end of losses to the current #4, #8, #10, #17, #17, away at Nebraska, and a loss to a possibly tournament bound (8-1 in the SWAC) Texas Southern.

A prediction, a point spread? Well, that all depends.

With only one mildly intimidating big man, Nnanna Egwu, a freshman forward who's talented, though not yet a consistent rebounder, Leron Black, and enough guard-forward size to contain a rebounding guard like Malcolm Hill, the Spartans should have their rebounding way against Illinois. So, Izzo will like that part, but then, he won't like the way that we...(add your favorite Izzo mad lib to the blank).

As a Spartan fan you would expect at least an easy 8-point win, and it could be more if the Spartans can get Egwu in some foul trouble which would allow for an over 18-point and 12-rebound game from our one's-on-one's-off-center-show Gavin and Costello.

Malcom Hill-type players have really been a match-up problem for the Spartans all season, but if MSU can either shut down Hill or hold his shooting partner Kendrick Nunn to 6 of 14 from the field instead of 9 of 14, and take care of the ball of course, being at home and with the Izzone hopping, this should prove to be one of the easier Big Ten games for the Spartans this season.