The Illinois Fighting Illini (8-7, 0-2) will return to the court on Thursday night at 8:00pm CT to face the No. 5 Michigan State Spartans (14-1, 1-1) in East Lansing. The Illini, who are coming off a narrow 75-73 defeat at the hands of Ohio State, are looking to avoid their first 0-3 start to Big Ten play since 2008. Michigan State, meanwhile, will be looking to survive an expected fourth-straight contest without star forward Denzel Valentine.
Player to Watch: Eron Harris (#14)
With this being Eron Harris' first season of eligibility at Michigan State, this is probably a new name for most Illinois fans. The six-foot-three guard transferred from West Virginia -- where he averaged 17.2 PPG as a sophomore -- and he sat out the 2014-15 season. This year, the junior guard is averaging 9.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 43.1% from the field.
Harris ends 27.0% of Michigan State's possessions, which is second on the team behind Denzel Valentine. But despite the relatively high usage rate, it still looks as if Harris is trying to find his niche within Tom Izzo's system. His average number of shot attempts has fallen from 12.7 during his last year with the Mountaineers, to just 6.8 in 2015-16.
Though, as expected, Harris' production has seen a notable increase with Valentine out of the lineup. Over the past three games, he's averaging 19.3 points and 5.0 rebounds while shooting a fairly efficient 48.5% from the field.
Numbers to Know
The Spartans are expected to play their fourth consecutive game without Denzel Valentine. Though they entered conference play as the No. 1 team in the nation, they hardly look like it without the six-foot-five senior in the fold. Valentine literally does everything for this team as he's leading the Spartans in points (18.5 PPG), rebounds (8.5 RPG) rebounds, and assists (7.1 APG).
Without Valentine in the lineup, this game becomes slightly more winnable for the Fighting Illini. That being said, it will still be no easy task. Malcolm Hill will need to feed off Valentine's absence and exploit the Spartans as best as he can. The Illini will need a huge night out of their best player if they want to pull off the upset in East Lansing.
Malcolm Hill has shot just 7 of 24 (29.2%) in his last two outings. Right when the Fighting Illini need to open up conference play with a bang, their star player fails to get much going from the field. That will need to change if the Illini want to find any sort of success moving forward.
Hill struggled in the first half against Ohio State last Sunday. Though he was able to make a few key baskets at the end of the game, he was unable to get much going for the orange and blue. It's tough to beat great opponents on the road without contributions from great players; it's likely that Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn will need at least 20+ points each in order for the team to have a chance.
Illinois' last outing against Ohio State marked the first time in the last six games where didn't get outscored in the second half. Despite the recent trend of falling behind late in games, Illinois looked sharp out of the halftime locker room and almost defeated the Buckeyes. Could the Illini be finally learning how to compete in crunch time?
Moving forward in the Big Ten, Illinois has to be able to play 40 minutes of near-perfect basketball. in order to have any chance of finishing in the top half of the conference. Too many times have the Illini failed to make halftime adjustments and, subsequently, they've been run over in the second. East Lansing is one of the more difficult places to play in the Big Ten, and it will undoubtedly take another complete effort to capture a victory.
Even without Valentine in the lineup, Michigan State is still clearly the better team on paper. It could be another very long night for Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan on the defensive end as they'll be tasked with guarding a talented front court that consists of Matt Costello, Marvin Clark, and five-star freshman Deyonta Davis. Meanwhile, Illinois' perimeter may also have their hands full with Eron Harris, speedy point guard Lourawls Nairn Jr. and Bryn Forbes, who's shooting 47.2% from 3PT on the year.
The bottom line is that it'll take one hell of an effort from Illinois in order to pull off this upset, and it doesn't help that the Breslin Center is one of the toughest places to play in the Big Ten. Sure, it's possible that, say, Jalen Coleman-Lands erupts for a career high, but I don't anticipate anything like that happening on Thursday night. I do, however, expect the final score to be slightly closer than anticipated.
Vainisi's Prediction (2-0): Michigan State 72, Illinois 61
KenPom Prediction (2-0): Michigan State 82, Illinois 65 (6% W)