9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Michigan State -1.5, Over/Under: 141.5
A pair of teams who not long ago were contending for Big Ten supremacy now find themselves reeling from successive defeats, as the fading Michigan State Spartans try to stop the bleeding at the No. 22 Illinois Fighting Illini from State farm Center in Champaign, Illinois. It seems like ages ago, but believe it or not, Michigan State (16-8, 8-5 in Big Ten) entered this season as the Preseason No. 1 team in the country according to the AP Poll, and after thirteen consecutive weeks of enjoying a place in the Rankings have now crashed out altogether. Then again, that’s what happens when you lose three consecutive games, which given the strength and depth of Big Ten, is always a possibility. Indeed, the Spartans have had a very rough go of it of late, as their play on the offensive end of the court has eroded, leaving Tom Izzo searching for answers at a time of the year in which the schedule is very unforgiving. Beginning with tonight’s meeting with Illinois, four of his team’s final six games will come against ranked opponents, including a pair of dates against league-leading Maryland, the first of which will come this weekend in East Lansing. And with that said, just as quickly as they’ve fallen out of the good graces of the Polls, the opportunity to climb right back up the mountain lays before them, for after all, this group remains only 1.5 games out of First Place in the Big Ten, along with five different teams breathing down the back of the Terps’ necks. However, as we stated already, if that is indeed going to happen, then Izzo has got to figure out how to fix the Offense. Michigan State has been dreadful in this regard during this losing streak, shooting only 39.8% from the field, including 32.4% from beyond the arc, while committing nearly as many Turnovers (11.7) as Assists (13.3). Compounding matters is the fact that they’re not pressuring their opponents enough, forcing just 9.0 Turnovers per Game, while sending them to the Charity Stripe too often, averaging 19.0 Free-Throw Attempts per Contest. Reigning Big 10 Player of the Year, Cassius Winston (18.6 PTS, 42.2% FG, 38.4% 3FG, 2.4 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.3 STL, 22.3 PER), has personified these struggles, with the Senior Guard shooting a meager 37.9% from the floor, while relying far too heavily on the money ball, attempting 8.0 Three-Pointers per Game, which are equating to nearly half of his Shot Attempts overall (19.7). Though their play on the defensive end has allowed them to stay in two of these games, including narrow defeats to Wisconsin (63-64) and Penn State (70-75), their 68-77 loss at instate rival Michigan was a different matter altogether. The visitors led on just one occasion last weekend, and that was when the game was 1-0, trailing 23-29 at Halftime in an affair that was far from one would consider aesthetically pleasing; at nearly six minutes into the First Half, the score stood at 3-3 with the two rivals combining for a dismal 2-of-17 shooting overall (11.7%). Eventually the teams would start find the bottom of the net, though it would be the Wolverines who would make the most of their attempts, knocking down 11-of-28 Attempts from downtown (39.3%), outscoring the Spartans in that regard by Fifteen Points, which would ultimately prove to be the difference in the game. In the end, Izzo’s charges would shoot 33.3% from the field, including 6-of-23 from the perimeter (26.1%), staying within striking distance only because of their ability to get to the Free-Throw Line (20-of-24). The aforementioned Winston led the way with Twenty Points but did so on a disappointing 5-of-18 shooting (27.8%), continuing his struggles. Junior Forward, Xavier Tillman (13.4 PTS, 52.2% FG, 29.3% 3FG, 10.2 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.2 STL, 2.2 BLK, 25.5 PER), enjoyed a strong showing, totaling Seventeen Points and Twelve Rebounds (5 Offensive), along with a pair of Steals and Blocks, as he had his way with the hosts in the Paint. Perhaps a meting with the Illini will be cure what has ailed them of late; when these teams met earlier this season at the Breslin center, Michigan State dismantled Illinois in a 76-56 drubbing in which the hosts outscored the visiting side 40-26 in the Second Half, with four different players scoring in double-figures, led by Winston with Twenty-One Points on an efficient 7-of-14 shooting (50.0%), Four Rebounds, Six Assists, and a Steal. The Spartans’ Defense smothered the counterparts, relegating them to a scant 29.3% shooting from the field, including 3-of-28 from beyond the arc (10.7%). With that said, much has changed since that encounter in early January, as Sparty has managed to go a mediocre 5-5, and Champaign hasn’t necessarily been the kindest of places to them, meeting defeat in two of their last three trips to State Farm Center.
Meanwhile, Illinois (16-7, 8-4 in Big Ten) is suffering through a similar predicament, having lost back-to-back games within the conference for the first time this season. What a difference a week can make in the Big Ten, where on February 2nd the Illini were in line to take complete possession of First Place. However, consecutive Second Half Collapses at Iowa (65-72) and at home to No. 9 Maryland (66-75) have sent them spiraling down the Rankings, where they now sit at No. 22 in the AP Poll. In some ways, the details of their recent struggles read as an inverse of Michigan State’s, with Brad Underwood’s charges faltering on the defensive end of the court after spending much of the season as arguably the best in the league in that department. In those two defeats, they allowed their opponents to score 73.5 Points on 48.1% shooting from the field, including 40.8% from the beyond the arc, while dishing out a problematic 17.5 Assists. That’s a far cry from the league-low 62.3 Points per Game they’ve permitted in Big Ten play, or the 39.4% (4th in Big Ten) and 29.8% (2nd in Big Ten) shooting from the field and from long-range that they’ve relegated opponents to thus far. But it’s that last figure, the Assists, that’s the biggest indicator of their sudden ineptitude; Illinois has found great success in pressuring the opposition this season, permitting a scant 10.5 Assists (1st in Big Ten), disrupting the flow of the game and creating chances in the open court. Simply put, this is a team that won’t survive many games in which they don’t defend up to par, for Underwood’s young group hasn’t developed the offensive game to win a shootout quite yet. Sophomore Guard, Ayo Dosunmu (15.8 PTS, 47.3% FG, 30.3% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 3.4 AST, PER), and towering Freshman Center, Kofi Cockburn (13.8 PTS, 52.3% FG, 9.0 REB, 1.3 BLK, PER), have merged as stars for the Illini, but even with that said, this is far from an efficient or prolific attack; the denizens of Champaign rank Eleventh or worse in a slew of offensive categories, including Points (65.1), Field Goal Percentage (40.8%), Three-Point Percentage (29.2%), and Assists (11.3). During that aforementioned losing streak these figures have continued to swoon, reaching a nadir of 38.7% shooting from the field, while committing more Turnovers (12.0) than Assists (11.5). When we last saw them, they led by as many as Fourteen Points in the First Half at home against Maryland, only to be outscored 24-35 in the second Half. The hosts spent large stretches of the first twenty minutes of action torching the Terrapins’ Man-to-Man Defense, but once the visitors switched to an uncharacteristic Zone, the complexion of the affair changed completely. Underwood’s troops were clearly surprised by the switch, as the visiting side opened the second period on an 11-0 run that they would never give up. Last Friday’s contest was indeed an emotional one, with FIVE Technical Fouls handed out to the combatants, including both Head Coaches. In the end, the home side shot just 36.1% from the field, including 14-of-39 from within the arc (35.9%), while racking up as many Turnovers as Assists (11). Illinois controlled the glass, outrebounding Maryland 39-29, including 14-4 of the offensive variety, but couldn’t slow down the Terps’ progression into the Paint, where they permitted 16-of-30 shooting (53.3%). Dosunmu led the effort with Sixteen Points, but struggled throughout the night on 5-of-17 shooting (29.4%), including just 1-of-6 from downtown (16.7%), and Four Turnovers, while Cockburn managed just Nine Points on 1-of-5 shooting (20.0%), with all but two of his total coming from the Free-Throw Line. Though the loss was no doubt a disappointing one, the same optimism that we handed to the Spartans also applies to the Illini; though they lost their brief grip on First Place in the Big Ten, this team remains just a single game out of the lead, and with looming encounters with Penn State and Iowa in the Regular Season Finale, the opportunity to reverse course is there for the taking. After years of mediocrity, there is a feeling that this once proud program is almost back to where they used to be as a member of College Basketball’s top tier. From 1980 to 2005 under the likes of Lou Henson, Lon Kruger, Bill Self and Bruce Weber, Illinois went to the NCAA Tournament on twenty occasions, were ranked in the Top-10 of the AP Poll ten times, won Six Big Ten Championships, and reached a pair of Final Fours and a National Final. Underwood rose to prominence at Stephen F. Austin, where he led the Lumberjacks to three consecutive Southland Regular Season and Tournament Championships from 2013 to 2016, before a brief stay at Oklahoma State in 2016-2017. After going 26-39 (.400) in his first two seasons in Champaign, he’s improved the program to the point where they’re ranked for the first time since 2013, with that meeting with Maryland serving as the first of it’s kind at State Farm Center featuring two ranked teams in seven years.