EAST LANSING — Prior to the Big Ten season, many Big Ten and college basketball advocates had this game circled on their calendar.
The Fighting Illini (15-6, 2-5) entered Big Ten play with one loss — to then-No. 12 Mizzou, and looked like a serious contender for not only a Big Ten Championship, but a National Championship as well.
The Spartans (17-4, 6-2 Big Ten) found themselves in a very similar situation to that of Illinois. Michigan State entered Big Ten play with only two losses — opening game against then-No. 23 Connecticut and Miami (FL) on the road, and they too seemed like they also had the potential to make a serious statement this season.
However, both teams received rude awakenings when Big Ten play finally rolled around, as Illinois lost their first game to Purdue and Michigan State fell to Minnesota.
While these two teams seemed identical record wise at that point in the season, the difference came once Big Ten play really got underway.
Michigan State won six straight after losing at Minnesota, including wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Spartans just recently suffered their second Big Ten loss on Jan. 27 to a then-No. 7 Indiana Hoosiers who shot 50 percent from the field as a team. Yet, MSU almost pulled out the victory as they lost 75-70 at Assembly Hall.
Illinois retaliated after their loss to Purdue with a 19-point victory over Ohio State, however, the Fighting Illini didn’t build off of that victory, and have plummeted since.
After beating OSU, Illinois lost four of their next five games, which includes double-digits losses to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Michigan.
Knowing Tom Izzo (Happy Birthday by the way!) I’m sure that he is telling his team that this Illinois squad can hang with anyone in the country despite their struggling Big Ten record.
While many are hailing Michigan’s Trey Burke as the best player in the Big Ten (which he fully deserves), I wouldn’t say Illinois’ Brandon Paul is that far away. The senior is averaging nearly 18 ppg and 5 apg, while shooting close to 42 percent from the field.
If the Spartans don’t want to fall victim to the struggling Fighting Illini they must dominate the glass. Illinois ranks 170th in the country in rebounding, only averaging 35.4 per game, and don’t have any players that average five or more per game.
MSU big men Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix can’t allow Illinois to get second chance opportunities because they have guys that have the ability to get hot.
With that being said, if Michigan State plays Michigan State basketball (meaning rebound, defend, and play inside-out offensively) there is no reason that they can’t win big. But, we all know that Michigan State plays to the level of their competition, good or bad, so don’t be surprised if you put a few holes in your wall or bite your nails down to the cuticles during this one.
Game starts at 7 p.m.