For the second time in the past 4 games the Illinois Fighting Illini are going to get a crack at upending the #4 team in the nation. This time the challenger with the #4 ranking comes clad in green in the form of the Michigan State Spartans, and this time the game will be played in the State Farm Center instead of in a hostile venue.
It’s been a rough 3 game stretch for the Illini to say the least. What began with a 95-70 throttling at the hands of the, then #4, Wisconsin Badgers has escalated into Danger Zone territory as the Illini have dropped games that they should have won against Northwestern and Purdue. When I say “should have won”, I am doing so from the on paper context. Obviously, the Illini didn’t play well enough, or do enough, to actually win those games that were there for the taking.
So, now the Illini find themselves staring another very tall task directly in the face, but that doesn’t mean this one is over before it even starts. Let me allow a former Illini to sum it up in 140 characters or less.
Last time Michigan State came to “The House Of Paign” as a top 5 team in 2009 they took a “L”!! I smell an upset tonight!!
— Dj Richardson (@djrich32) January 18, 2014
Perhaps Richardson is on to something here.
Spartan big man Adreian Payne is currently sidelined with a sprained right foot and has been listed as “very, very questionable” for tonight’s game by Spartan Head Coach Tom Izzo.
Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, and MSU leading scorer (17.6 ppg), Gary Harris is currently questioning his level of play according to Michigan State Beat Writer Mike Griffith in a recent article.
Despite MSU having these question marks hanging over their heads, the Spartans have still managed to ascend to #4 in the nation behind an unblemished start to the Big Ten portion of their schedule (5-0) and a 16-1 overall record. As stated above, Gary Harris is their guy, but it’s not a one horse show in East Lansing. The Spartans are deep, and they are probably going to give Illinois fits on the glass if recent history is any indication.
MSU currently checks in at #20 in the nation in rebounds per game (40.3 rpg) whereas Illinois checks in at #116 (37 rpg) in the nation. Clearly, there is a reason that John Groce chose right now to publicly address his teams toughness coming off a second half against Purdue that saw them get completely manhandled 23-7 on the glass. He wants them re-committed to rebounding because that’s where Illinois can level the playing field against a Spartans team that’s most likely going to be lacking it’s second leading rebounder in Payne (7.7 rpg).
For Illinois to be effective in tonight’s game they are going to have to put a body on Branden Dawson. The 6’6″ junior G/F is currently Michigan State’s leading rebounder (8.9 rpg), and he is coming off back to back double digit rebounding efforts. The key word here is effort. He isn’t the biggest guy on MSU’s team, but he’s just flat out showing a will to rebound the basketball right now even though he isn’t posting gaudy point totals.
Three Things I’d Like To See Tonight
1. Take Advantage of the Situation - With Adreian Payne most likely out, or severely limited, hit the glass hard and turn those opportunities into points. Keep MSU off the offensive glass and limit their ability for easy putbacks. Simply put, win the rebounding battle, but make something happen as a result. Illinois destroyed Wisconsin and Northwestern on the offensive glass but missed so many putbacks it wasn’t a true advantage. Make them count!
2. Gauge Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill Early and Reward Them - The freshman duo are going to get minutes, that much is known, but how many? If they hit the court early and display the toughness, and aggressiveness, that Groce is looking for then he can’t be afraid to turn to them down the stretch if this is a tight game. The natural tendency is to stick with what’s worked in the past, but recognizing a hot hand and riding it is just as important.
3. 100% Effort for 40 minutes - I don’t want to see a single guy drift through this game for any period of time. If he’s in there, he needs to be attacking on both ends of the floor. Playing passively just isn’t going to get it done against the #4 team in the country.
When: Saturday, January 18, 2014, 7 PM CST
Where: State Farm Center – Champaign-Urbana, IL
TV: BTN (Directv 610 / DISH Network 439)
Announcers: Eric Collins (Play by Play) and Jim Jackson (Analyst)
Feel free to drop back in during the game and chat with me in the comments section below with any observations you may have! I-L-L!
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @RPKraemer.