It wasn't a good start for the Illinois Fighting Illini (16-8, 6-5) as the Michigan State Spartans (15-8, 6-4) jumped out to an early 10-2 lead. However the Illini crawled back into it to take a 18-14 lead with 7 minutes to go in the first half. There were three ties during the remainder of the game, but it was a lead that didn't really go away.
With the big road win, Illinois is in much better position to make the NCAA Tournament. They've now won four out of their last five games including the last three over Penn State, Rutgers, and now Michigan State. Before this streak they hadn't won two consecutive games in the Big Ten all season.
The Illini will be looking for revenge on Thursday night as the Michigan Wolverines come to town for another crucial game. A record crowd will be on hand, it's an orange-out, and it's Dee Brown bobble head night. However before all that, here are some observations from today's big win:
1. Malcolm Hill is a Star
Today, Malcolm Hill was the best player on the court; nobody on Michigan State could stop him. His 19 points and 6 rebounds were great, but those big jump shots and step backs came at crucial, crucial points in the game for Illinois. It's been very fun to watch Malcolm grow up before our eyes as he's turned from "good player" to "star of the team" in the absence of Rayvonte Rice. His junior and senior years are going to be fun to watch. Look out, Big Ten.
2. Nnanna Egwu is a Great Leader
Nnanna stepped up big time today with his threes, rebounding, blocks, defense--the list goes on and on. It was his best game of the season and possibly of his career. He's the anchor that these young sophomores need. When he was called upon, he provided excellent help defense and he shut Michigan State's best player, Branden Dawson, down. Overall, Egwu controlled the paint against one of the B1G's best front courts.
3. Austin Colbert Has Improved
Today we saw Colbert in the final two minutes of a close game. I repeat, the final two minutes of a close game. And it was well earned. He played solid defense and knocked in a huge put back on a Malcolm Hill jumper. Over the last couple of games, we've seen Colbert starting to finally "understand" college defense. He gave a ton of effort and Coach Groce rewarded him by putting him in during crunch time. Whenever Dawson or Matt Costello touched the ball Colbert was right there with his hands up. He really didn't have any bad plays and I hope he can keep improving.
John Groce is the man. The toughness and togetherness the team displayed today was unbelievable. With all the adversity this team has faced, he still had them prepared and ready to win a big game over the Spartans. And the team has gotten better. On the defensive end everyone has picked up their game. Guys like Ahmad Starks, Maverick Morgan, Leron Black, and Colbert are all becoming much, much better on the defensive end. Everyone is boxing out (which apparently is a foul now) and giving max effort.
I thought he called timeouts at all the right times. Whenever the crowd was about to get into it he made a quick timeout and got his players refocused. He thoroughly out-coached Tom Izzo today. He stayed calm enough to not get another technical on what was, once again, an awful call on Jaylon Tate. The best part: it's February so that means his teams are just getting going.
Teams To Beat MSU At Home Two Years In A Row Last 14 Seasons: '14 & '15 - Illinois '10 & '11 - Purdue '06 & '07 - OSU '05 & '06 - Illinois— Thomas Beindit (@tbeindit) February 7, 2015
John Groce has taken some heat this season. But at this moment right now, he's your Big Ten Coach of the Year. #illini— Dave Wischnowsky (@wischlist) February 7, 2015
I wasn't able to watch most of the second half, but I did get to see the Jaylon Tate situation near the end of the game. Ted Valentine--what in the actual hell was that call? No, seriously--what the hell?
The Sparty 1-and-1 and foul on Jaylon Tate pic.twitter.com/Ipd1bgIScX— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) February 7, 2015
Wut? Let's just forget about the MAJOR discrepancy in fouls calls throughout the game for a second. A technical on that play is simply inexcusable. The Illini are lucky that Trice couldn't make his free throws because this call could very well have cost them a tournament appearance. Here's the
homeristic explanation from the officials, in case you missed it:
Marcus Jackson (@MarcusJ_NG) February 7, 2015
As you can tell, I'm still a bit stunned over this. College officiating is getting worse seemingly each and every day--some major changes need to made across the board. They could start by relocating Valentine to, say, the Mountain West conference.
Whatever, we won. I'm (almost) over it.
— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniHoops) February 7, 2015