Michigan State is really good. Like really good. Like Illinois has not played an opponent like the 17-3 (5-2 Big Ten) Spartans this season. Sparty has not missed the NCAA Tournament since 1997, and that run is destined to continue for a team that has remained in the top ten of all season long.
Michigan State’s three losses so far this season come to Duke, a surprisingly good Ohio State and in-state rival (and also not a slouch) Michigan. Besides a close call against Rutgers earlier this month, Michigan State has rolled through Big Ten play, Indiana, Maryland, Rutgers (in their first meeting) and Nebraska.
On the other hand, Illinois has already dropped games to Maryland, Nebraska and Michigan, making this game (based on common opponents) look that much more difficult for the Illini.
Key Losses and Additions
Michigan State only lost seniors Eron Harris and Alvin Ellis III to graduation after last season. Tom Izzo’s squad has returned eight of its top-10 players from last season, including 78 percent of the 2016-17 team’s scoring.
Ellis had only started a handful of games a season ago, but Harris started 24 games as a senior last year. Sophomore guard Cassius Winston has stepped up in Harris’ role, scoring more than 12 points and handing out about seven assists per game.
One of the older teams in the conference, Michigan State only has four freshman on its roster, and only two of them in the regular rotation. Jaren Jackson Jr. is the team’s fifth-leading scorer at 11.4 points per game, and he is from the same program as former Illini Jalen Coleman-Lands (La Lumiere in Indianapolis). Jackson, 6-foot-11, is incredibly lengthy, but he needs to work on his rebounding if he wants to make more of an effect in the Big Ten.
MSU’s other freshman getting minutes is forward Xavier Tillman at 8.3 minutes per game. If the game gets ugly, watch out for big minutes from Jackson and Tillman in the middle of the Spartans’ Big Ten schedule.
Michigan State’s star watch goes to Miles Bridges. Many around college basketball were shocked when the Flint, Michigan, native announced he would return for his sophomore season, and it skyrocketed the Spartans to the early favorite for the 2018 championship.
After missing the entire month of December in his freshman season, Bridges returned for Big Ten play and did not disappoint. Bridges scored 21 points on 6-of-17 shooting against Illinois last season — a game you might remember as Malcolm Hill’s senior night OR the last time Illinois won a Big Ten game in football, men’s basketball or women’s basketball.
Playing in 19 of 20 games this season, Bridges has scored double-digits in every game but one, averaging a team-high 16.9 points. He also has been active on the boards with 7.2 rebounds per game, despite only being 6-foot-7.
Bridges is built for the NBA and will be mightily successful in the league when he chooses to make the jump, but he is currently terrorizing Big Ten defenses.
However, Bridges gets his points from a high volume of shots, so if Illinois will just have to keep hoping that the Spartans’ shooter shoots — and misses.
As much as Illini nation would like to see Brad Underwood’s team find a way to come through with a huge upset at home, a game that would most likely result in Orange Krush storming the court, it just does not seem too likely, especially after the egg Illinois laid at Wisconsin on Friday night.
Unless Illinois finds a way to get itself its own offense — Aaron Jordan, Kipper Nichols and Mark Smith were all held scoreless in Madison — it will not matter what the Illini do on the defensive end.
This likely isn’t the case, and Illinois is on its way to setting a program-record for most consecutive Big Ten losses to open conference play.
Michigan State 81, Illinois 59