In the midst of this whole football coaching fiasco, there is basketball to be played tonight. The Michigan State Spartans have another tough road test — the team has struggled mightily away from the Breslin Center — against the Illinois Fighting Illini. Tip-off is set for 9 p.m. EST and the game can be watched on ESPN.
MSU is coming off of a road loss to the rival Michigan Wolverines, which makes it sting even more. The Spartans have dropped three games in a row and now find themselves unranked in the top-25. Michigan State enters the game with a 16-8 overall, with an 8-5 Big Ten record.
Illinois, on the other hand, has had recent struggles of its own. The Illini have dropped two conference games in a row to Iowa and Maryland (both ranked opponents), but still enter tonight as the No. 22 team in the nation. Overall, Illinois is 16-7 with an 8-4 conference mark.
Michigan State defeated Illinois handily in the last matchup, by a score of 76-56, on Jan. 2. Of course that was a home game for the Spartans where the squad plays much better. Cassius Winston (21 points, six assists and four rebounds) and Xavier Tillman (19 points, seven rebounds, six assists, four blocks ) led the charge for MSU, as usual. Perhaps more importantly, Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry were also in double figures in this game. Finding a consistent third and fourth scoring option is an element that has often been missing from Tom Izzo’s team this year, and when it does happen, success has been there. Other players outside of Winston and Tillman will need to step up tonight in order to win.
Illinois is led by sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu, who averages 15.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, while shooting 47.3 percent from the floor (30.3 percent from three-point range). Dosunmu scored 18 points against MSU in the first meeting. Freshman center Kofi Cockburn is second on the team in scoring with 13.8 points per game, and leads the Illini in rebounds with nine per game. The Spartans did a great job defending Cockburn in the first matchup, limiting him to five points on two-of-10 shooting (he did grab nine boards in that game, including six on the offensive glass). Senior guard Andres Feliz (11.1 ppg) and junior guard Trent Frazier (9.8 ppg) are other scoring options.
Illinois has been one of the biggest surprises of the Big Ten this season, along with Penn State and Rutgers. This is by no means an easy road test for MSU, but following a three-game skid that dropped the team out of the national rankings, this seems like the time where the Spartans usually come alive — once everybody else has counted them out. The important thing will be for MSU to come out with energy and not fall behind early in the first half, as the team has done one too many times.
Call me crazy, but I kind of have a good feeling about this one.
Here is your game thread. Go Green!