After finally reaching .500 in Big Ten play with a victory over Rutgers, Kendrick Nunn and the Illinois Fighting Illini (15-8, 5-5) are getting ready to kick off their toughest stretch of the season on Saturday as they're in East Lansing to face the Michigan State Spartans (15-7, 6-3).
John Groce didn't comment on the availability of Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby for Saturday's game, but he did inform the media that the duo are still suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. He went on to state that the two have been "full-go" in practice recently and that they've both recovered nicely from their respective injuries. So although Groce didn't completely rule out a return against Michigan State, it doesn't seem very likely that either Rice or Cosby will suit up.
Sophomores Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill will look to continue their recent hot streaks against the Spartans. The dynamic duo is averaging a combined 25.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per game on the season and, according to Illinois' game notes, their combined 31.1 points per game during league play is the highest combined scoring average from two sophomores throughout the six major conferences.
The Spartans currently sit at fourth place in the Big Ten however this isn't a typical Tom Izzo team. I'm a bit hesitant to call this a down year for the program, but that's exactly what it is when given the team's recent history. Michigan State is 0-4 against ranked teams this year (0-5 if you count Notre Dame, who wasn't ranked at the time) and they've gone to overtime a whopping five times (2-3). They've also lost to Texas Southern, who's currently 11-11. The bottom line is that the Spartans have 'struggled' to replace some of their star power from a year ago. Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, and Denzel Valentine is certainly a nice core of players, but they're not of the same caliber as Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, and Keith Appling.
The all-time series between the two programs is tied 57-57. The two 2013-14 games were split; the Spartans took the first contest in Champaign by a score of 78-62 and the Illini followed suit with a 53-46 upset in East Lansing.
Illinois Fighting Illini:
- Jaylon Tate | SO
- Kendrick Nunn | SO
- Malcolm Hill | SO
- Leron Black | FR
- Nnanna Egwu | SR
- Travis Trice | SR
- Bryn Forbes | JR
- Denzel Valentine | JR
- Branden Dawson | SR
- Matt Costello | JR
The Illini will need to improve upon their interior defense and rebounding to have any chance for a victory in East Lansing. Illinois' defense was, in my opinion, atrocious at the beginning of the Rutgers game--there were way too many uncontested layups being given up. However to their credit some adjustments were made and the Scarlet Knights were completely shut down for a majority of the second half. Nevertheless, a slow defensive start against Michigan State could be deadly.
The Spartans shoot a respectable 51.4% from inside the arch and 39.3% from three-point range; those figures are good for 51st and 20th nationally. Senior Branden Dawson is a huge reason for that; he's averaging a double-double per game (12.0 points, 10.1 rebounds) while shooting 52.3% from the field. Dawson is a dominating presence down low that will demand double-team if he gets into good post position. I'm not exactly sure who will draw this assignment for most of the afternoon, but it will almost certainly be either Malcolm Hill or Leron Black. Whoever it is better come ready to play on the defensive end.
TCR Prediction: Michigan State 67, Illinois 61 (35% W)
KenPom Prediction: Michigan State 72, Illinois 64 (19% W)