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Men’s Basketball Preview: No. 12 Illinois Fighting Illini versus No. 19 Michigan State Spartans

Can MSU turn things around against the visitors from Champaign?

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago today, things looked bleak for the Michigan State basketball team. The Spartans had a record of 10-9 overall and just a 4-9 record in conference play. It looked as if Tom Izzo’s cherished NCAA Tournament streak was about to come to an end. But, somehow, the Spartans rallied and won five of the final seven conference games to just sneak into the First Four of the Big Dance.

Along the way, the Spartans defeated two teams that would go on to earn No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament (Illinois and Michigan), as well as a team that would earn a No. 2 seed (Ohio State).

In mid-February of 2020, Michigan State fans were glum for a slightly different reason. Michigan State had started Big Ten play 8-2, but the Spartans hit a skid in early February where they lost four games over a five game stretch to drop to 9-6 in the conference.

But, MSU rallied to win the final five Big Ten games and in the process and were able to share the program’s third consecutive conference title. Four of those wins were against ranked teams and two of those four wins were on the road.

In the here and now, the Michigan State Spartans find themselves in a similar situation. The Spartans spent some time this year at the top of the Big Ten standing in late January, but over the past few weeks Michigan State has lost three of the last four games, including an epic second half collapse on Tuesday night in State College against Penn State.

While Michigan State (18-7 overall and 9-5 in Big Ten play) is not in any current danger of missing the NCAA Tournament, and although the hopes for a Big Ten title are all but gone, MSU is still searching for consistency and hoping to finish the season strong with a very challenging schedule.

The first major challenge for the Spartans in the team’s year-end gauntlet is this Saturday’s game against the Illinois Fighting Illini. The game will take place at noon at the Jack Breslin Student Events Center and will be televised on ESPN.

Illinois’ season has also hit a recent snag. About 10 days ago, the Fighting Illini were flying high in first place in the conference with the projected best odds to at least share the Big Ten regular season title. However, Illinois was blown out at Purdue on Feb. 8 by 16 points, survived a scare versus Northwestern on Feb. 13 and on Wednesday night this week fell at Rutgers by 11 points. The Illini (18-7 and 11-4 in the Big Ten) are now a half-game behind Purdue in the standings.

This Saturday’s game will be the second regular season meeting between the two teams this year. Michigan State traveled to Champaign on Jan. 25, when the Illini played the game without starting center Kofi Cockburn and point guard Andre Curbelo due to a combination of concussion and other health-related protocols.

In the absence of Cockburn, the Spartans were able to out-rebound the Illini 41 to 27 and Michigan State’s starting center Marcus Bingham Jr. scored a team-high 13 points. But, the Spartan guards especially struggled to shoot the ball all evening. The Spartans managed just 20 points in the first half and trailed by 14 points at the break.

Michigan State played a bit better in the second half, especially on defense. The Spartans allowed only a single field goal and only four total points in the final nine-and-a-half minutes of the game. With under a minute to play, the Spartans had cut the lead to just two points and had the opportunity to tie the game or take the lead with a three-pointer.

But, point guard Tyson Walker missed a jump shot with 16 seconds left, and then with just one second left, forward Malik Hall missed the first of two free throws, which could have tied the game and forced overtime. In the end, the Spartans left Champaign with a 56-55 loss.

With the recent struggles of both teams, one would expect a measure of desperation on both benches on Saturday. The Illini are in danger of falling even farther behind in the Big Ten race in the final stretch. The Spartans are trying to prove that they belong in the upper tier of the conference and are trying to keep their potential seed in both the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament from sliding any further.

If Michigan State is to win on Saturday, the Spartans will need to slow Cockburn who averages 21.4 points (second in the Big Ten) and 11.3 rebounds (first in the Big Ten) per game this season. Michigan State will also need to contain Illinois’ combo guard Trent Frasier (12.4 points and 4.0 assists per game), who led the Fighting Illini in scoring in the first matchup with 16 points.

The Spartans also need to limit guard Alfonso Plummer i (14.9 points per game) and swingman Jacob Grandison (9.9 points per game). Both Plummer and Grandison are shooting 40 percent from deep for the season.

Overall, Illinois ranks No. 3 in the Big Ten in scoring at 75.9 points per game and No. 6 in defense at 66.4 points allowed per game. For comparison, Michigan State currently ranks No. 6 in offense at 72.7 points per game and No. 4 in defense at 66.1 points per game. Illinois is currently ranked No. 15 in Ken Pomeroy’s overall adjusted efficiency margin metric, while Michigan State is currently ranked No. 23.

With the teams so closely matched, Kenpom projects a 53 percent chance of a Spartan victory with a margin of victory of just one point. However, ESPN gives the Fighting Illini a 52 percent chance to win. In other words, the game looks like a toss-up.

If the Spartans are to emerge with a win, then Michigan State is going to need to harness the same level of focus and sharpness that the team displayed in the wins at Wisconsin and at home against Michigan and Indiana.

Michigan State will likely need a good game from Hall and at least one of the Spartans’ two point guards (Walker or A.J. Hoggard) will need to play well. Finally, Michigan State needs to get improved shooting from the wing out of either senior Gabe Brown or freshman Max Christie, and hopefully from both.

If the Spartans can defend Cockburn, limit Illinois’ shooting and get solid energy and execution from the players listed above, it should be a good day for Michigan State fans on Saturday. A strong performance could be the catalyst for another late season Spartan surge into March. But, the key word in that sentence is “could.”