What Happened Last Year:
On Senior Night last year, the Illini got a much-needed win over Michigan State. The 73-70 gave Illinois some momentum heading into its game at Rutgers and kept their NCAA Tournament hopes at the time intact. The Illini got 22 points and 14 points, respectively, from senior leaders Malcolm Hill and Maverick Morgan. Hill also added four assists and three steals, while Morgan contributed seven rebounds, three assists, and a block.
Despite being outrebounded 33-25, the Illini controlled the turnover battle, forcing the Spartans to 15 and limiting themselves to just seven. Illinois controlled the lead for most of this game, despite Michigan State cutting the deficit to single-digits multiple times. Kipper Nichols split a pair of free throws in the final seconds, and the Spartans just missed a last-second three-point attempt that would’ve tied it. After the game, Malcolm Hill delivered the most heartfelt interview in recent Illini memory:
ALL THE FEELS.
How Can Illinois Win:
The Illini square off against the Spartans at least twice this season, which probably isn’t a good thing. The two teams first meet up Jan. 22, and the rematch will be played almost an exact month later in East Lansing. In order for Illinois to steal another one away from Tom Izzo, it needs to be the perfect storm.
Illinois will need a very, very impressive defensive performance, limit turnovers like they did last year, shoot the ball well and pray that the Spartans didn’t come to play that day or that they get bit by the foul bug.
How Can Illinois Lose:
Well, there are a lot of ways Illinois can lose. Most obvious is Miles Bridges. The sophomore is coming off an All-Big Ten Freshman Team and All-Big Ten Second Team year in which he averaged an impressive 17 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.
The Spartans also return stud sophomore Nick Ward, who averaged his own respectable 14 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
Combine that duo with a top-15 recruiting class of guys like five-star forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and four-star forward Xavier Tillman, and you have a talented group of youngsters. And don’t forget about Gavin Schilling. That guy is still playing; he just missed last season with a knee injury. Starters Josh Langford and Lourawls Nairn Jr. (TUM-TUM) return for the Spartans this year, and so do Matt McQuaid and Cassius Winston, a couple of guards who will give Michigan State significant minutes.
Tom Izzo’s team is LOADED this year. He has a lot of young firepower to work with, and they will terrorize opposing teams all year. Any one of these guys is capable of going out there and exploding for 15-20 points on any given night.
These two games should be ones that you chalk up as automatic “L’s” if you’re looking at the schedule at the beginning of the year. Michigan State will not just be a favorite to win the Big Ten Tournament this season, but also be a favorite to win the national championship. Barring no plethora of significant injuries, it will be all there for Tom Izzo to have a legitimate shot at the title. He has a nice blend of youth and experience, solid bench depth, and plenty of playmakers. The Spartans should win both of these matchups handily on their way to what is likely going to be a successful season.