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Michigan State Men’s Basketball Preview: Fighting the Illinois Fighting Illini in Champaign

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The league-leading Spartans travel to Illinois for another clash of Big Ten title contenders.

Notre Dame v Illinois
Will he play? Kofi Cockburn’s health could be an important factor on Tuesday night.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

After a thrilling road win at Wisconsin, No. 10 Michigan State faces another daunting task when it heads into a battle with the 13-5 and No, 24-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini in Champaign. Brad Underwood’s squad is coming off a bad week and two losses in a row, so the Illini should be highly motivated in a game against the league leading Spartans.

Game Information

When: Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022, 7 p.m. ET

Where: State Farm Center, Champaign, Illinois

TV: ESPN

The state of the Illinois program

Brad Underwood is in his fifth season as the head man at Illinois and early on, it looked like he might not even make it to this point. Despite following up the rather disappointing John Groce era in Champaign, Underwood struggled out of the gate with a lack of talent on his roster and a system unfit for the rugged Big Ten. But ever since his first two years in which he only won 11 conference games combined, Underwood has done a great adjusting his system, mostly ditching the full-court press, recruiting nationally on the high school level and restoring the program to its once prominent heights.

With Underwood at the helm, Illinois has improved its win total every year and the Illini have won 29 Big Ten games over the last two years, plus an additional six conference games during the 2021-2022 season thus far. It is mostly par for the course with Underwood, who has excelled at every level he’s coached at, from his junior college days at Daytona Beach to a highly successful stint with Stephen F. Austin (though later tainted by an academic scandal that spread throughout the entire athletics department) or a one-year job at Oklahoma State. It wasn’t surprising that Illinois gave the well-liked Underwood a contract extension until 2026, as the program seems to be in very good hands with the Kansas native.

The next step for the Illini now is to have its steady rise over the last few years lead to titles and postseason success, something the program definitely looks equipped to compete for moving forward.

How Illinois is doing this season

The Illini (ranked No. 11 in the Associated Press Preseason Poll) struggled mightily out of the gate by losing two of the team’s first four games on the road at Marquette and versus Cincinnati, the latter one being a 20-point-blowout on a neutral floor in Kansas City. After that, though, the team has found its rhythm, only losing to powerhouse Arizona during an 11-game stretch. Last week, though, was a bummer for the Illini as they lost a double-overtime thriller against Purdue and got handled easily on the road at Maryland without Kofi Cockburn who missed the game with a concussion.

Purdue v Illinois
Brad Underwood has rejuvenated the Illinois program.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Illinois still sits pretty well in the Big Ten standings and the Illini still have all of their regular season goals right in front of them. The recent return of Andre Curbelo should also help the Illini to find a different gear, as he is not only one of Illinois’ most talented players, but also an emotional leader for the entire group.

Projected Starting Lineup

PG Trent Frazier (Sr., 6-2, 175 lbs, 13.4 points, 3.6 assists, 42.4% FG, 36.7% 3P FG)

SG Alfonso Plummer (Sr., 6-1, 182 lbs, 16.4 points, 2.6 rebounds, 45.5% FG, 41.3% 3P FG)

SG Da‘Monte Williams (Sr., 6-3 215 lbs, points, rebounds, 28.9% FG, 34.1% 3P FG)

PF Jacob Grandison (Sr., 6-6, 205 lbs, 11.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 49.6% FG, 46.8% 3P FG)

C Kofi Cockburn (Jr., 7-0, 285 lbs, 21.1 points, 11.8 rebounds, 58.9% FG, 67.6% FT) (Update: Cockburn is out)

Key Reserves

G Andre Curbelo (So., 6-1, 175 lbs)

F Coleman Hawkins (So., 6-10, 200 lbs)

F Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk (So., 6-8, 235 lbs)

C Omar Payne (Jr., 6-10, 230 lbs)

What to expect from Illinois

In part, this Illinois team is a wonderful throwback to the days when big men reigned supreme in college basketball. The massive Kofi Cockburn is a vintage post-up presence with incredible strength, girth and the back-to-the-basket game that makes all old timers shed a tear or two. He is the centerpiece for the Illini’s four out attack, often presenting a gigantic target inside and opening up lots of space with his wide body. After contemplating leaving for the NBA or transferring from Illinois in the offseason, the sympathetic Cockburn (who has a fascinating backstory coming over to the U.S. from Jamaica) decided to stay in Champaign, and has taken his already at times dominant play from his first two years to a higher standard in 2021-2022. He is in the concussion protocol now, though, after last week’s game against Purdue — a huge blow fort he Illini. His status for Tuesday’s game against Michigan State is in question.

Normally, Illinois will give Cockburn the ball in the post to let him operate, but the Illini would much rather initiate the offense from the perimeter to find their center as a finisher deep in the paint. With plenty of guards being dangerous outside shooters — most notably senior playmaker Trent Frazier, wing Jacob Grandison and Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer — it’s hard to give too much attention to Cockburn, so essentially it becomes a pick your poison situation. This of course changes if the big center is out and Illinois becomes extremely reliant on its perimeter players. Frazier isn’t your traditional floor general and Illinois likes to run a lot of weave action, off of which it counters by going into the post or with elbow screens to free up shooters this way. Because the aforementioned trio is so dangerous from the outside, they often can get into the lane with defenders overplaying the three-point shot. Here, all of them have a quick release in the mid-range area yet also get to the hole from time to time.

Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament - Ohio State v Illinois
Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo can be a handful in the backcourt.
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

One player who can truly be an X-factor for Illinois is sophomore star Andre Curbelo from Puerto Rico. The creative guard has missed most of the year with post-concussion syndromes, but seems to be finding his game rather quickly after his return. He is a versatile combo guard who does a great job getting into the paint, and has a knack for keeping his dribble alive and forcing the defense to collapse on him. Last year‘s Big Ten All-Freshman performer has a notable flair to his game, finishes extremely well inside and has the moxie to give Illinois a different kind of intensity level, even if he doesn’t shoot it well from the outside and raises some questions defensively.

Looking at the numbers there are plenty of things the Illini do very well, most notably the Illini are a very balanced team, ranking No. 15 on offense in KenPom, No. 32 in defense and No. 15 overall (Michigan State ranks No. 19 overall). Illinois is a very strong rebounding team, out-rebounding its conference opponents by more than 11 boards per game and being the top ranked Big Ten team on the offensive glass (top-10 nationally, too). Underwood’s guys also are extremely dangerous from the outside as they almost shoot 38 percent as a team from downtown. A lot of it has to do with Cockburn, how much he makes a defense adjust its positioning and how much space he clears out. Playing him of course also brings its disadvantages in modern college basketball. He isn’t the most movable defender, can struggle to get back in transition and will often times not extend out on the perimeter against screens.

Illinois tries to make up for that with a very aggressive defense and the Illini overplaying the three-point line can lead to plenty of open lanes to the basket. Overall the Illini aren’t a very tall group in the backcourt and even while their front-court size balances that out for the most part, they can struggle with longer wing opponents. With Cockburn in the concussion protocol, Illinois’ offense could struggle mightily to find its depth, his backups (Omar Payne and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk) are defensive-minded role players at the moment and don’t even come close to offering the presence of the Illini’s star center.

Update: Kofi Cockburn and Andre Curbelo will both miss Tuesday’s game.

Key matchup: Tyson Walker/A.J. Hoggard vs Trent Frazier/Andre Curbelo

Even if Cockburn plays, the point guard battle deserves plenty of attention. Curbelo and Frazier are dangerous scoring guards who can impact the game from anywhere on the floor. They have the ability to hurt you on all three levels and especially with Cockburn out or not 100 percent, they will look to be aggressive early and often. On the road, Walker and Hoggard have to remain calm and keep the game under control for Michigan State on both ends of the court — a tough challenge against the talented duo they will be facing.