On February 10, it felt like it was March.
If you were one of the 14,797 people who filled Breslin Center on Saturday afternoon, your ears are still ringing, as mine are. For the first time in a little while, there was a real buzz in the air to go along with the giveaway towels set on each seat before tipoff. It was a “great environment, as good as we’ve seen,” according to Illini coach Brad Underwood. Tom Izzo opened his postgame press conference emphasizing the importance of playing at home by saying “Thank God for home court....thank God for our fans.”
Today, home court carried the day.
AJ Hoggard, after struggling in Minneapolis, was locked in on Saturday afternoon, where he led the team in scoring with 23 points along with 5 assists. Malik Hall set the tone with the opening basket of the day, and he ended up with 22 points and 5 boards in one of his better performances of the season. Tyson Walker, who came up limp with what looked like a groin injury against the Gophers, added 19 points in a game where he didn’t have to be the man. Jaden Akins was key, especially with early scoring as he added 8 points in the first half alone. His technical foul late in the first half, an obvious response to a technical called on Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins earlier in the going, could have been a major turning point for the Illini, as Terrence Shannon hit a pair of free throws to make it a three point game at halftime. In a game with 16 lead changes and 15 ties, every play mattered.
This Illinois team, ranked at #10 in the nation coming into Saturday’s matchup with MSU, was one of, if not the last opportunity for the Spartans to check a major box on their postseason resume as the college basketball season comes careening toward its conclusion. The Spartans, a darling of the advanced metrics regardless of their win-loss record, have desperately needed quality wins to accompany the numerous “quality” losses that have given the MSU fanbase ulcers since tipoff. The wins are going to come - a team sitting at 17 in the KenPom ranking is too good not to take care of inferior competition. Coming off the crushing road loss at Minnesota, this game was pivotal - the fork in the road that would determine the course of the next few weeks of basketball in East Lansing.
Outside of a trip to West Lafayette on March 2, the rest of MSU’s schedule is about as friendly as the Big Ten can be. On the road, the Spartans get Penn State, Michigan, and Indiana. At home, MSU hosts Iowa, Ohio State, and Northwestern. That said, Penn State is hot. Michigan took Wisconsin down in Ann Arbor just a few days ago. No road game in the Big Ten is automatic, as Illinois’ struggle in the Breslin Center snake pit today shows.
The flaws with this team are still there, the same ones we’ve all been talking about ad nauseum for months. The play at center has been poor, and Jaxon Kohler’s return from injury hasn’t been a miraculous cure for MSU’s ills in the frontcourt. AJ Hoggard has been inconsistent, and outside of Tyson Walker, there’s nobody you can feel super comfortable banking on every night.
The beauty of college basketball’s postseason is that it’s not about pure consistency - it’s about the ceiling. This team, for all its flaws, for all its frustrations, has the ceiling to be fun in March. Not a guaranteed......anything, but a shot to compete against the best.