There is a difference between what a team looks like on paper and what they look like on the court. In Illinois, this seems to be the dominant reality for the fighting Illini this year. A trendy pre-season pick for the upper echelons of the Big Ten, this squad built almost entirely out of players new to Illinois is struggling to survive the Big Ten.
Overall, Illinois is 11-5, but they are just 2-3 in the Big Ten. Some of the losses have been painful. Particularly a 16-point home loss to Penn State and a 13-point loss at Northwestern looked pretty bad (admittedly, Northwestern beat MSU…so maybe they are better than we thought). But nothing was worse than a neutral court absolute disaster of a loss to Missouri (93-71).
The Fighting Illini host Michigan State after seeming to get back on track Two recent wins, a home win over Wisconsin and road win over Nebraska, are a step forward for a squad that has looked very shaky of late.
It is hard to predict Illini, as despite the long tenure of Coach Brad Underwood, this year’s roster is essentially entirely new this year.
Starting Center Coleman Hawkins is the lone large production returner. The 6-10 Junior is shooting 57% from two while averaging 10 points and 6 rebounds a game. The other active returning player this year, RJ Melendez only played a partial season last year due to injury. This year he’s averaging just under 7-points a game. Unfortunately, the guard also has more than twice as many turnovers than assists.
Turnovers are a serious problem for the Fighting Illini this year. The squad ranks 281st in the country in turnover percentage according to KenPom, and average more than 14 a game. That is atrocious. And it should only get worse with star Freshman point guard, Skyy Clark departing the program. The freshman’s 7 points a game can be replaced, but his 27 total assists - a stat he leads all Illinois guards in - may be harder to replace.
Turnovers match the trend in this matchup of opposites.
Uncharacteristically, MSU is actually taking care of the basketball this year, almost ranking in the top 50 nationally in turnover percentage.
This contrasting stat fits a larger mold where:
Illinois is excellent at 2-pt FG percentage, ranked 12th in the nation, and MSU is pretty horrible, ranking 257th.
On the flip side, MSU is excellent at the 3-PT %, ranking 32nd in the nation, while Illinois ranks 191st.
Essentially, Illinois likes to dominate games down low, while relying on the occasional hot streak from three. For anyone watching MSU this season, that is the exact opposite to MSU.
While MSU will give a lot of help to post defense (doubling, digging down, soft hedges, etc.), their most likely path to victory is trading 3-pointers for 2-pointers.
If Illinois shooters hit a hot streak - something their senior guard, Terrence Shannon Jr., and fifth year guard/forward Matthew Mayer can do - it could be a problem for MSU. Or if the Spartans shoot like they did against Michigan, this could get ugly for MSU quickly.
On the other hand, if MSU can at least play decent defense, rotating Cooper, Sissoko and Kohler to spread the fouls around, their shooting should give them a shot to pull this game out.
In the end, this game could be an ugly affair determined by fouls. Illinois’ paint heavy game tends to draw a lot of fouls, and MSU has been generous with fouls this year in the paint.
For Illinois it’s been let’s foul anytime, anywhere. In the paint, on the three point line, and essentially ANYWHERE Illinois is extremely generous in its fouling.
So this could come down to which team actually hits their free throws, an ugly affair to watch that would most likely favor MSU.
In the end, an ugly, bruising game most likely favors the Spartans. The crowd will be loud as always, but the experience in big games and playing together on the Michigan State roster should carry them to a win, even if it is another “rock fight.”