It was about as cold as I can remember in Champaign, and I was waiting outside Assembly Hall, teeth-chattering with anticipation.
This was February 2010, and the mighty Spartans were in town boasting the No. 5 ranking in the country. ESPN College Gameday handpicked the game before the season as a marquee matchup. Rece, Digger, Hubie and Bilas introduced the day in hoops with a manic Illini crowd in the background.
You probably remember what came next. The feverish crowd willed Illinois to victory, capped by a D.J. Richardson dunk that would have been near-iconic had it not been for the team's lackluster NIT finish to the season. The students stormed the court. Bruce Weber bought himself another year (I would later joke that Izzo was throwing Sparty's games against Illinois so Bruce could keep his job).
But Michigan State was missing its best player that game: Kalin Lucas. The All-Big Ten guard was ruled out of the game, and the Illini took advantage.
Stop me if this all sounds familiar heading into tonight's tilt against the Spartans. With the exception of the Gameday crew's absence, it's nearly identical. Including Michigan State's best player not suiting up.
As of late Saturday afternoon, we have this to go off on Adreian Payne's status for the game:
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>. <a href="https://twitter.com/Graham_Couch">@Graham_Couch</a> said he doubts Adreian Payne plays tomorrow vs. <a href="https://twitter.com/search?q=%23illini&src=hash">#illini</a>. Might not play vs. Indiana either.</p>— Jeremy Werner (@WernerESPNCU) <a href="https://twitter.com/WernerESPNCU/statuses/424303083737210880">January 17, 2014</a></blockquote>
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Obviously, that's not a clear-cut injury status. But if the Michigan State beat writer is hearing Payne might not even play against Indiana next week, it's unlikely he suits up tonight.
That's monumental for a potential Illinois upset. Payne would be my Big Ten Player of the Year selection if I had that voting power. He converts 55 percent of his 2-point attempts, many of which come after he soars over the opponent's rebounders for an offensive rebound and putback. After he goes to work in the post, he'll pop out for the occasional 3-point attempt and hits 43.9 percent of them (mostly of the late-game dagger variety).
Enter Nnanna Egwu. The Illinois center has been a blight on the team's already dismal offense, and he hardly attempted a shot near the rim last game against Purdue. To give him some slack, Egwu expends loads of energy both on defense and setting screens on offense. Illinois head coach John Groce said he covers up things on the defensive end that are hard to notice (probably worth a future post but, essentially, he's outstanding at defending the pick and roll). And in any given game, Egwu will set around 100 screens on offense.
Does that totally absolve his performance recently? Probably not. But it's not hard to see why he's clanking open shots at times. If Payne doesn't go, that's a significant rebounding and defensive burden eased of Egwu's shoulders. I'm predicting an active Nnanna on the glass tonight, which hopefully translates to some easy baskets.
With no Payne, the defensive focus will shift purely to Gary Harris and Keith Appling. Harris will be lottery pick if he jumps to the NBA this season, but he's actually going through a bit of a shooting slump. He's still 40 percent from the field, and he's dazzling in transition, but a stout Illini defense should make things tough for him.
Groce said this week that his vote for Big Ten Player of the Year would go to Appling, and that shows you how good this Spartan team is when arguably its third best player is garnering that much praise. Appling, a heady senior who has endured Izzo's tough love for four years, instantly stabilizes the team and really makes the offense run. I'm not sure he can be stymied, but he's capable of all-out takeovers at the end of games.
Branden Dawson and Travis Trice round out the major production for Michigan State. Dawson's long arms make him a nightmare for offenses via deflections and blocks. Trice shoots 42 percent from 3-point range and over half of his attempts are from that distance. Both will provide big plays in key moments with their collective skillset.
Look, I think there are some nice pieces on this Illinois team that haven't quite coalesced into a cohesive whole. It's not hard to foresee stretches of tonight's game where Illinois will seem totally overwhelmed by the talent and experience of Michigan State. But Payne's absence is a start, and a primetime game in front of a sold-out crowd might just push Illinois toward the improbable upset.