Fighting the Fighting Illini: Previewing the Michigan State Spartans, Gm. 19

Illinois guard Demetri McCamey (#32) drives on Michigan State's Mike Kebler (#20) during the Illini's victory against the Spartans last season.

Similar to the start of Big Ten play, the Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team heads into its home contest against the Michigan State Spartans having lost its last two games and struggling to make shots.

Can Illinois turn around its lackluster shooting and uninspired play against the Spartans?

We’ll find out soon enough when Illinois and Michigan State square off in Champaign tomorrow at 6:00 p.m. CT.

Michigan State Spartans Season at a Glance

The Spartans entered the season with high expectations coming off their second straight Final Four appearance.

Michigan State was a unanimous pick as the #2 team in the nation behind Duke, and many experts thought that this year’s team could bring legendary head coach Tom Izzo his second National Title.

While the season has not exactly gone as planned for the Spartans, Michigan State is still a very serious threat in the Big Ten and come March, despite an unimpressive record at the moment.

After winning its first three games easily, Michigan State was “stunned” by Connecticut in Maui. Of course, Connecticut was unranked at the time, but thanks to the scoring exploits of Kemba Walker, the Huskies knocked off Michigan State, won the Maui Invitation and currently sit at #8 in the nation.

The Spartans rebounded with a gritty win against Washington but came to an early second loss of the season in the Big Ten/ACC challenge to #1 Duke. To the Spartans’ credit, they played Duke extremely close at the always tough Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Michigan State also lost in New York to Syracuse and at home against Texas (which beat Illinois at Madison Square Garden in November), entering conference play 8-4.

While many were puzzled at the Spartan’s apparent struggles, it is now clear that Michigan State simply played the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation, which is what Izzo tries to do every year: prepare his team for March with ridiculous opponents in November and December.

Michigan State’s four non-conference losses were to teams that, as of this week, are ranked #3, #5, #8, and #11.

The Spartans also have defeated teams currently ranked #17, #19, and #20.

At the start of Big Ten play the Spartans seemed to regain their poise, knocking off Minnesota and Northwestern to move to 2-0. However, Michigan State then suffered its worst loss of the season at Penn State, getting upset by the unranked Nittany Lions a mere three days before the same thing happened to the Illini.

Although Michigan State has won the two games since Penn State (at home against Wisconsin and Northwestern), both contests went to overtime and the Spartans have not looked like a title contender in either matchup.

Of course, there have been plenty of other years when Michigan State didn’t look all that hot in January and still made a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

Record: 12-5 (4-1 in the Big Ten)

Combined Record of Teams Michigan State has Beaten: 99-75

Combined Record of Teams Michigan State has Lost To: 73-14

Best Win: Washington (11/23/2010)

Coming off its first loss of the season to Connecticut, Michigan State faced #11 Washington in the consolation round of the Maui invitational.

Instead of letting the UCONN game hang over them, the Spartans scratched and clawed to a gritty 76-71 win that kept the team in the top five until the loss to Duke.

Game the Spartans Would Like to Have Back: Penn State (1/8/2011)

Although the Connecticut loss was tough at the time because the Huskies were not ranked and the game was so close, the Penn State loss is clearly the worst defeat on the Spartans’ resume, although the Nittany Lions have proved in the last week that they are no pushover (ask Michigan State, Illinois and Ohio State).

Removing the Penn State upset, Michigan State’s other four losses were against teams with a combined 63-7 record.

The Penn State game was neck and neck the whole time, with no team leading by more than 6 points and 17 lead changes taking place.

Ultimately, poor free-throw shooting (10-20 from the charity stripe) undid Michigan State against Penn State (15-23 from the line), which squeaked out the 66-62 win.

Michigan State Players Familiar to Illinois Fans

Much like Illinois, Michigan State returned the bulk of last year’s Final Four team, which is why the Spartans were such a trendy preseason pick.

Point guard Kalin Lucas (6-1, 195) and shooting guard Durrell Summers (6-5, 205) are the key seniors on the Spartans. The two seniors lead the team in scoring with 14.7 and 14.2 points per game respectively.

Lucas entered the season with some questions as to how well he could perform having torn his Achilles tendon in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. While Lucas has had a strong season, leading the team in scoring and ranking in the top 5 in assists, steals, and 3 point percentage, he still does not appear to be at the level he was at before his injury last March.

When playing with urgency, Summers is one of the most dangerous players in not only the Big Ten but all of college basketball, as seen during Michigan State’s run to the Final Four last season.

Michigan State’s juniors are no slouches either. Draymond Green (6-6, 230) may be the most versatile college power forward in the nation and is the clear emotional leader of Izzo’s team, while Delvon Roe (6-8, 230) is a force to be reckoned with in the post. After dealing with knee problems during his first two seasons, Roe finally appears healthy and is starting to play with much more consistency.

Together, these four upperclassmen average 49 of the 73 points that the Spartans score per game.

Michigan State also features dangerous junior reserve guard Korie Lucious (5-11, 170), who gained great experience stepping in for the injured Lucas during the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight and Final Four last season.

Sophomore centers Garrick Sherman (6-10, 240) and Derrick Nix (6-9, 270), redshirt junior Austin Thornton (6-5, 220) and senior Mike Kebler (6-4, 205) are all role players who see some time for the Spartans.

Key Freshmen: Keith Appling (6-1, 180) is 6th on the team in scoring while averaging almost 20 minutes per game off the bench. Appling was huge during Michigan State’s overtime win against Northwestern on Saturday, scoring 19 points and hitting a go-ahead three pointer.

Freshman big man Adreian Payne (6-10, 225) is a bit raw but has impressive skills that should make him a stud before he’s done in East Lansing.

Key Departures: The Spartans did lose senior Raymar Morgon, who was a big part of Michigan State reaching the Final Four the past two seasons, and junior Chris Allen transferred to Iowa State after repeatedly butting heads with Izzo.

Recapping Michigan State vs. Illinois last season

Illinois split the series with the Spartans last season, with each team winning at home.

The Illini traveled to East Lansing to take on the 8th ranked Spartans last January. After leading for most of the first half, the Illini started misfiring from outside, and Michigan State took advantage to lead at halftime and the rest of the way. The final score was Michigan State 73, Illinois 63. Review the Writing Illini Tale of the Tape.

In February, the then fifth-ranked Spartans returned to Champaign to try and sweep the series, having won the previous five meetings between the two schools. This matchup was featured on ESPN’s College Gameday, and the whole campus was filled with energy for the game. Fueled by the fans, the unranked Illini would get big games from Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Brandon Paul to knock off the Spartans 78-73. Review the Writing Illini Tale of the Tape.

Tomorrow’s Prediction: Illinois 75, Michigan State 74

The Illini should be revitalized by returning home after two tough road losses, and the home crowd is sure to be excited for this game. With Jereme Richmond back in the lineup, the Illini post players should have a more favorable rotation. The Spartans have had Illinois’ number in recent years, taking five of the last six meetings, but this year’s Illinois team has been very good at home and is in the midst of a nine game home-winning streak.

Michigan State has been scraping by on the slimmest of margins since the Penn State loss, and I think Illinois turns its shooting woes around again at home and pulls out a close win.

What I Would Like to See Tomorrow Night

1. Double-digit figures from Mike Davis. The senior has a reputation of being an up-and-down player. Some games he will lead the team in scoring and rebounding, and in others he will have 4 points and one board. While McCamey is the unquestioned leader of the team and how well he plays usually keeps Illinois in a game, Davis might be the key for the Illini. In games when Davis scores 11 or more points this season, the Illini are 10-1. Davis had a big game last year when the Spartans visited Champaign, and he tends to play better in the fast-paced games that Michigan State plays as opposed to the slower tempo affairs many other Big Ten teams prefer.

2. Richardson finds his rhythm again. After the Northwestern win, D.J. Richardson was the team’s second leading scorer and one of its biggest threats from behind the arc. In the last two games, the sophomore has scored 3 points, all from the free throw line. Richardson is 0-9 from the field in has last two games, both of which have been losses for the Illini. Richardson has been slowed by an injury and has had the very difficult task of guarding Taylor Battle and Jordan Taylor in those games, so it is understandable that he would be tired on offense, but if he can sink some shots, it would help open up the rest of the team and give the Illini a morale boost.

3. Strong starts to both halves. Illinois seems to set a tone for itself in the first five minutes to a half and follow that the rest of the half. In games where the Illini came out shooting well, they set records for field goal percentage in a game. However, when they come out cold, as the Illini did against Wisconsin, they have set season lows in shooting. If Illinois can hit some big shots early, especially at home where the home crowd will get energized, they stand a very good chance of pulling off the upset.

Until tomorrow night.

Writing Illini will not do a live blog but will provide an update after the game.

Topics: Assembly Hall, Bill Cole, BP3, Brandon Paul, Bruce Weber, Crandall Head, D.J. Richardson, Demetri McCamey, Draymond Green, Durrell Summers, Head Coach Bruce Weber, Illini, Illini Basketball, Illinois, Illinois Basketball, Jereme Richmond, Joseph Bertrand, Kalin Lucas, Meyers Leonard, Michigan State, Michigan State Basketball, Michigan State Spartans, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale, Raymar Morgan, Tom Izzo, Tyler Griffey, University Of Illinois

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