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MSU Men’s Basketball: Illinois Preview and Game Thread

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

Game Info:

Where: Breslin Center, East Lansing, MI

When: 8:00 pm (EST)

TV/Radio: FS1/Spartan Sports Network radio

Illinois 9-4 (1-1): #43 (Kenpom)

Depth Chart:

1 - Trent Frazier (6’2” jr)
2 - Ayo Dosunmu (6’5” so), Andres Feliz (6’2” sr)
3 - Da’Monte Williams (6’3” jr), Alan Griffin (6’5” so)
4 - Giorgi Bezhanishvili (6’9” so), Kipper Nichols (6’6” sr), Tevian Jones (6’7” so)
5 - Kofi Cockburn (7’0” fr)


Illinois has been building for a few years now under... Underwood. This is his best squad, he has players at every position (even if some have under-performed thus far this year), and he has a major match-up problem for opponents in his freshman behemoth Cockburn. Though they haven’t beaten anyone of note in the non-conference schedule (with losses to the three highest rated Kenpom teams they faced out of league in Arizona (#16), Miami (#79), and Missouri (#50)) they have performed very encouragingly to start league-play losing a one-point game at UMD (brutal environment and a very good team; so a “good loss” [grinds teeth]), and a solid win over UM at home.

This team is solid on offense (#34 in Ortg) and solid on defense (#54 in Drtg), largely on the back of strong offensive and defensive rebounding (40% oreb%, #3 in the nation, and #45 in opponent oreb%) and getting to the line and preventing opponents from getting to the line.

This team struggles to shoot the 3 (30.3% for the year, #274 in the nation), compounded by their refusal to shoot 3’s, and turns it over a ton on offense (on 21.3% of possessions good for #267 in the nation). Illinois forces teams to play fast on offense, but play rather slowly themselves.

All of this can be explained by the addition of Cockburn. The Illini routinely play with two bigs, neither of whom stretch defenses. This clogs the paint, opening up the perimeter for what should be open looks by their guards. The only problem is that their guards don’t shoot particularly well from beyond the arc (only Alan Griffin and Trent Frazier are around or over 35% from 3; Bezhanishvili is at 40% but only on 15 attempts, which is inexplicable).

The big frustrations for Illinois this year have been Dosunmu who has regressed a bit (unable to slash effectively, and still not a jump shooter playing with two bigs just doesn’t help him exert a consistent influence on the game), and Bezhanishvili, who has seen his paint touches decrease without increasing his volume from beyond the arc. That Underwood hasn’t insisted on Bezhanishvili taking at least three 3’s a game is one of the more perplexing coaching decisions of the year from my vantage point.

Both Bezhanishvili and Cockburn are loads on the block, good rebounders, and good rim defenders, but for this team to really find its footing Bezhanishvili needs to be stepping out and shooting way more from the perimeter, Frazier needs to be shooting more, and Dosunmu needs to be getting to the line/paint (he only has a 17% ft rate this year, despite being an 80% ft shooter - kind of like Valentine his senior year, but without the 3pt shooting).

It is unclear to me why Griffin is not the third perimeter starter next to Frazier and Dosunmu, but Underwood seems to like his shooting coming off the bench instead of helping space the floor with his most talented players (double-takes are appropriate here).

Illinois lost to UMD by one on the road to open B1G play (with Cowan owning the game and UMD giving as good as they got on the offensive glass), before beating UM at home (forcing a bad game out of Simpson while the two bigs dominated the paint) - Illinois won the game despite going 1-11 from 3, in part because they held UM to 3-18 from 3.


This is not a great match-up for MSU. Illinois has caused MSU all kinds of problems in the last couple of years (2-2 in the last 3 years) largely because they have harried Cassius Winston into three of his worst performances of his career in those four match-ups. The two keys for the game are fairly straight-forward:

  1. Will MSU continue to trend towards their true shooting percentage (likely somewhere around 37% for the season, in my guess/opinion), or will they have a step backwards on the shooting front after posting three strong shooting performances in a row?
  2. How will MSU handle Cockburn and Bezhanishvili?

I am optimistic on the first question: Izzo, Fife, and Garland have game-planed well against Illinois the last few outings (the loss last year was an abberation and the last loss in a three game losing streak after the team found out it had lost Langford for the year - Winston had 9 turnovers, Aaron Henry, Nick Ward, and Kenny Goins all played poorly on the same night, and McQuaid hadn’t yet realized that he was the freakin’ MAN), and MSU has generated good shots against Illinois for the last two years. We are at home, and guys are feeling good about themselves. Expect MSU to hit about 12-34 from 3.

The second question is tougher to forecast: defensively it will be a struggle. Bezhanishvili is bigger and craftier than all of the fours he will face except for Kithier and Marble (more on them in a bit), and Cockburn is WAY bigger than Tillman. Expect Bingham jr and Hall to struggle mightily in this one, and for Tillman, Kithier, and Marble to play the deciding role in the front court.

This cannot be the game that Bezhanishvili finds his 3pt stroke, and the wings will really have to do major work on the offensive and defensive glass - they have to crash the boards AND get out and run the wings. Running and playing at tempo will be the best way for MSU to attack both bigs - the fast MSU can play, the more the two bigs have to run, the more tired and foul/mistake-prone they will become.

MSU must pressure passers - force everyone (even Dosunmu) to be drivers in order to create. MSU must also cover pin-downs well - Illinois does a lot of pin-downing to free up entry passes/high-low feeds to Cockburn who is very good at sealing his man (again, pressure the passer).

Assuming Cash comes back to the line-up well rested and fresh, we should expect some up-tempo basketball and some physical contests at the rim. It may make sense to have Tillman play as the 4 in this one (have him shut down Bezhanishvili and stay out of foul-trouble against Cockburn) and let the 4 headed monster do their best fronting Cockburn, while relying on the wings to crash the glass.

Film study:

Though MSU is not dissimilar to UM in terms of how we match-up against Illinois (smaller, stretchier at the 4, and ostensibly better 3pt shooting), I would expect the Spartans to shoot far better at home than UM did on the road, for MSU to compete much better on the boards than did UM, and for MSU’s game-plan around how to deal with the two bigs to turn out better than UM’s did.

UM’s lack of size on the perimeter (in Simpson, Brooks, and DeJulius) hurt them, and we can expect Loyer and Watts to struggle in this one. But if Henry and Brown play solid games, and, especially, if Ahrens can stay on the floor defensively long enough to get shots off, then MSU should take this one at home.

Look for a track-meet early, Illinois to claw back into the game, and for some clutch plays from Cash and Aaron Henry down the stretch. This is also a possible turning point game for Gabe Brown who will get a chance to defend Dosunmu a lot, and who hasn’t yet had a flamethrower game this season...


MSU 84 ILL 74