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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: Illinois Preview

The Spartans head into the homestretch of the Big Ten schedule with a matchup against the Fighting Illini.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports


Where: Breslin Student Events Center, East Lansing, Michigan

When: 7:00 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021



Illinois Fighting Illini


PG Trent Frazier (SR, 6-2, 175), Andre Curbelo (FR, 6-1, 175)

SG Adam Miller (FR, 6-3, 180)

SF Da’Monte Williams (SR, 6-3, 215), Jacob Grandison (JR, 6-6, 205)

PF Ayo Dosunmu (JR, 6-5, 200), Coleman Hawkins (FR, 6-10, 215)

C Kofi Cockburn (SO, 7-0, 285), Giorgi Bezhanishvili (JR, 6-9, 245)


Illinois finished the 2019-20 season with a 21-10 record (13-7 in Big Ten play). That landed the Fighting Illini with a fourth place finish in the Big Ten, albeit only one game out of a three-way tie for first place. The Fighting Illini were in the AP Top-25 for seven weeks, and ended the regular season ranked 21st in the polls. On the court, Illinois was great at rebounding. On the glass, the Fighting Illini outrebounded their opponents by 7.5 rebounds per game, while nearly bringing down 40 boards per game. They were not that dominant statistically, but managed to get tough Big Ten wins. Illinois ended the regular season with five wins in the team’s final six games. Some members of the roster managed to bring home some postseason awards. Kofi Cockburn was awarded the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Award, and Ayo Dosunmu was placed on the All-Big Ten Second Team. Both players declared for the NBA Draft, but decided to return to school for their sophomore and junior seasons, respectively.


Illinois came into the season with extremely high preseason expectations. AP ranked Illinois as the eighth best team in the country, while the USA Today Coaches poll placed them at 10th in the country. Dosunmu also came into the season with extremely high hopes, as he was placed on the AP Preseason All-American list. The Fighting Illini bring back four of their five starters from the 2019-20 season. Freshman, Adam Miller, is the only new addition, as he fills in at the two-guard spot. Including Miller, three freshmen currently occupy rotation spots for Illinois, showcasing the strength of the Illini’s recruiting class. 247Sports ranked their 2020 class as the 16th best in the country. On offense, they are led by Dosunmu and Cockburn, while the freshmen and Trent Frazier have had the occasional big game. Defensively, their four-guard lineups allow for a ton of flexibility with scheming as the Illini can reliably switch everyone except Cockburn.


Ayo Dosunmu is the undisputed star of this team. He is still very much in the running for the AP National Player of the Year at this point in the season. His role for Illinois is to be the lead guard and a reliable defensive force. He is taking on a large offensive load, as his usage percentage is above 30 percent. He is averaging 21.2 points per game through 21 games. He has shown improvements as a shooter from deep and from the free throw line since his sophomore season. This may be due to a small sample size, but Dosunmu has become a respectable shooter from deep, putting down 42 percent of his triples. He has four 30-point games on the season, as well as five games with double-digit rebounds. He is coming off one of his best games of the year, as he posted a triple-double against Minnesota. Dosunmu manages to do all this without being an overwhelming heliocentric force that stalls the offense.


Illinois runs the spread offense, which is a three out, two in, motion offense. The basic principles of this offense are based around off-ball screening and constant movement. Players within the offense are relied upon to read the defensive scheme in a live-ball setting and react to it. There is technically no post man in this offense, but Cockburn is the obvious exception to the rule. The half-court sets typically always start with a backdoor cut that can either allow a lob pass over the top or the opportunity to rescreen for a pindown. A major point of emphasis within the spread is to attack the baseline off of the wings, as it may be difficult for the defense to rotate while also dealing with the off-ball actions.


Coach Brad Underwood took over for the Fighting Illini in spring of 2017. After finishing under 0.500 in his first two seasons, he brought Illinois onto the national contender scene with an impressive 21-10 record before the postseason was canceled in 2020. Coach Underwood came to Illinois after spending time at Oklahoma State beforehand. Before arriving at Illinois, Coach Underwood had the third-most wins through a coach’s first four seasons in Division I history. In total his record stands at 172-81.


Michigan State comes into this game with an 11-9 record overall and a 5-9 record in the Big Ten. After two losses to Iowa and Purdue, the Spartans managed to snag a win against Indiana. Aaron Henry, Joshua Langford, and Gabe Brown were the only sources of offense for the Spartans as they combined for 70 percent of the team’s 78 points. Although Michigan State struggled with turnovers, the Spartans managed to control the glass (plus-seven advantage) while also putting down seven three-pointers. Tom Izzo’s team is in desperation mode as the season winds down. With six games left in the Big Ten schedule (four of those against teams seated in the top-five of the AP Poll), the Spartans need to split the games against ranked opponents and pray for an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament. Paul Fanson does a much better job than I ever could of explaining the math behind the rest of this season.


Illinois is a buzz saw at this point, and that does not bode well for Michigan State. Henry needs some support on the offensive end of the floor from Langford and Rocket Watts. On defense, one of the bigs need to step up and be physical with Cockburn on defense, unless they would like to see him go for an easy 20 points. Expect Illinois to pull through without much of a fight, although one can always hope for a good showing from the Spartans.