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Michigan State travels to Champaign where a desperate Illini team awaits

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time this season, Michigan State is clearly trending up.

Thanks to a weak bubble Tom Izzo’s team has a very good shot at making the NCAA Tournament at 18-11, but with the way they’ve been playing the last two weeks, there might be a little more than just “making it” left in the tank.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. As well as they have been playing of late, MSU still has to win a couple games before they are considered a “lock”. The first of their remaining tests comes tonight against Illinois.

The Basics

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The Numbers

  • Record: 17-12 (7-9 Conference / 11-5 Home)
  • Best Win: vs VCU* (RPI: 23), 64-46
  • Worst Loss: vs Penn St (RPI: 81), 70-83

Last Five Games

  • 2/26 — @ Nebraska, W 73-57
  • 2/21 — vs Northwestern, W 66-50
  • 2/18 — @ Iowa, W 70-66
  • 2/11 — vs Penn St, L 70-83
  • 2/7 — @ Northwestern, W 68-61

*Neutral site game

I can’t even begin to talk about Illinois until we cover their incredible giveaway for this game and get whoever came up with this idea an immediate promotion.

Just like regular trips to your dentist, Illinois should not be overlooked. They may be 17-12 but have won four of their last five, including a pair of wins over seemingly tournament-bound Northwestern. That’s the good news. Of course, there’s also bad news because there’s always bad news.

Aside from those wins over Northwestern, an early season win over VCU and a nice road win over Michigan, the Illini haven’t beaten any team that’s currently projected to end up in the Big Dance.

It’s not like they haven’t had their chances, either. John Groce’s team has missed just about every opportunity to notch anything close to a “signature” win, including games against West Virginia, Florida State, Maryland (twice), Indiana (when healthy), Purdue, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Add those up and you can see why the Illini aren’t in Joe Lunardi’s “First Four Out” or even his “Next Four Out”. A win over Michigan State would certainly help, but the odds are still not in their favor.

Not only would they need to beat MSU and, subsequently, Rutgers but they’d probably need to get at least two, maybe three, wins in the Big Ten Tournament just to sneak in. It’s a long road to hoe, but the Illini do have one of the best players in the conference to help try and get them there.

Illini To Know

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to Illinois’ limited relevance and the runaway Player of the Year candidacy of Caleb Swanigan, Malcolm Hill’s season is going widely unnoticed.

Hill’s Senior year averages (17.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists) are down a bit from his standout Junior campaign (18.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists) when he finished Second Team All-Big Ten, but he is still having an outstanding year.

As a team, Illinois has already won two more games than they did a year ago, and as an individual Hill’s three point and field percentages are up (34.8% 3PT, 44.4% FG in 16-17 vs 31.4% 3PT, 43.6% FG) so it appears he is doing a better job of picking his spots and it’s leading directly to wins.

Hill, a 6’6” wing, is going to pose a challenge for Miles Bridges or any other defender that ends up on him. How MSU checks Hill on his Senior Night will be a major factor in who wins this game.

How Does MSU Match Up?

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois is sort of like MSU in that they play a lot of guys but don’t have what you would call “outstanding depth”. 10 players average at least 14 minutes a game, but only two score in double digits and none average more than three assists per game. They do hit the boards evenly, though, as four different Illini average four-plus boards per contest.

The toughest individual match up might even be Hill, it might actually be 6’10” sophomore Michael Finke who shoots a strong 40.7% from deep. If the Illini run out a front line of Hill, Finke and 6’10” center Maverick Morgan, Michigan State is going to have a tough time defensively. They’ll also have to keep an eye on guard Tracy Abrams who shoots a team-leading 41.4% from beyond the arc. With so many effective deep shooters, this will be an interesting test for the Spartans perimeter defense which, while improved, is far from a finished product.

Offensively, the formula for success is fairly straightforward. Feed Ward in the post, let Bridges drive to the basket, get one of Josh Langford, Matt McQuaid and Alvin Ellis going, and let Cassius Winston be the catalyst.

I wrote about it after the Wisconsin game, but you know a player is special when they can go 2-for-11 from the field and still control a game. That’s exactly what Winston did against the Badgers and what he’ll have to do — preferably with a better line from the field — moving forward.


NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

This is not going to be an easy game.

Illinois has six seniors playing for the final time at home and five of the six average 14 minutes a game. They’re going to come out just as hungry as MSU did last weekend against Wisconsin and the Spartans will have to take a punch.

MSU has plenty of their own motivation and are seemingly maturing at the right time, but this is arguably their biggest mental test of the year. How do you handle success and deal with a motivated and senior-led unit?

If the answer is “like freshmen” then they’re in trouble, but if the answer is “like a Michigan State team in March” win number 19 might be in store.

Izzo keeps things rolling in a close one.

MSU 75 Illinois 70