What They Did Last Year
Michigan State is the perennially successful team for Tom Izzo, and Illinois has not had much luck against them as of late. During the 2017-18 season, the Spartans had an outstanding 30-6 record at the end of the season, going 16-2 in conference play. This was fueled significantly by players like Jaren Jackson Jr.’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year campaign and Miles Bridges’ decision to stay in East Lansing for a second year.
The only losses the Spartans suffered were to No. 1 Duke, Ohio State and Michigan, until losing in the Big Ten tournament to the eventual runners-up Wolverines. As has been common in recent history with Izzo’s teams, they had an early exit compared to what many expected in the NCAA tournament. Syracuse, a team many analysts felt shouldn’t have made the field, upset Michigan State, 55-53.
Miles Bridges said goodbye to his school, and Tom Izzo and all the returning players would have to wait another year to make a run in the tournament.
This Year’s Spartans Team
Luckily for Izzo and Spartans fans there was plenty of returning talent from last year’s squad. Jackson and Bridges departed for a larger paycheck, but Cassius Winston and Nick Ward have been leading a successful campaign thus far into early February. They are currently ranked ninth in the country, touting an 18-4 record overall and just two conference loss to nine wins.
Aside from Winston and Ward, the Spartans returned Xavier Tilman, Matt McQuaid and Josh Langford, amongst others. Unfortunately, Langford was ruled out for the rest of the season last week with a foot injury. I suppose that might be good for the Illini in Tuesday’s matchup.
In terms of scoring, Winston and Ward are the two remaining players averaging double figures in points, with 18.5 and 15.6, respectively. Ward also pulls down seven boards per game and has 30 blocks so far this year. Winston and McQuaid are both averaging better than 40 percent from beyond the arc, and both Tillman (7) and Kenny Goins (9.4) are averaging more rebounds per game than Ward. There’s a lot of guys to keep track of.
Obviously, only four losses at this point in the season is deserving of a top-10 ranking. And none of the losses are particularly bad. One was a close 92-87 loss to Bill Self’s Jayhawks; another close loss to Louisville in the B1G/ACC Challenge; and then the only conference losses were at Purdue last week, 73-63, and versus Indiana on Saturday, 79-75.
What Needs to Happen
In a game like this one, there is a lot to unravel. Michigan State and Illinois, aside from their records, are nearly opposite teams. With Langford out, Michigan state is very heavy in the front court with Ward, Tillman and Goins. That’s going to be tough for Giorgi to work with, and Adonis will likely not be able to keep up with those guys on the defensive end. McQuaid and Winston will both be problems with transition threes and rotation breakdowns in a man-to-man defense that has had a history of getting burned by jump shooting.
There are two possible scenarios where Illinois can jump out to an early lead, and really compete with the Spartans down the stretch:
- The combo of Giorgi/Adonis/Samba (?) get Ward into foul trouble early with some good fundamental defense, and Giorgi is able to get some open looks around the rim and disrupt the Spartans from the inside out.
- Ayo and Trent both hit their first several shots, and provide great rotations to keep Winston and McQuaid from shooting well in the first 10 minutes.
These are both scenarios Brad Underwood would like to see from his guys every game, but they just aren’t at the point where they can do so. Ayo and Giorgi are still inexperienced, Samba doesn’t play, and Adonis has shown difficulty on defense. But after a nice win against #Nebrasketball on Saturday — and, finally a good game from Kipper Nichols — Underwood might feel confident he can make it two in a row at home. It’s all about avoiding scoring droughts and getting timely stops on defense, which has not happened much this season on any sort of consistent basis, hence the 7-15 record.
Oh, and can we make our free throws? Against Nebraska, the Illini had more than 20 attempts from the charity stripe but converted on just nine. That’s unacceptable.
I am excited to watch this game and see how Brad prepares his guys for a tough game following a big win. Unfortunately, the Spartans could not defeat Archie Miller’s struggling Hoosiers, making this game of utmost importance for Izzo and his team to win. If they lose, that would make three straight losses and the possibility of a two-seed more of a pipe dream. Regardless of Michigan States’s preparedness, it will be a tough one for the Illini outplay the Spartans for 40 minutes.
I think Giorgi will be able to have some early success on the offensive end against the Ward/Tillman/Goins tandem that he will likely be posting up against, but I am not sure he will be able to maintain it throughout the whole game. If he has just one or two fouls going into halftime, that is a good sign that we are competing well to start off.
The other X-factor, in my opinion, is how Trent and Ayo work together against a back court that lost its second-best player. The duo had 24 combined points, and both were in double figures against the Cornhuskers on Saturday. That’s a great sign along with Kipper playing out of his damn mind for the first time since the Michigan State loss last year, where he had 25 points.
Unfortunately, I think Izzo and his team are too battled-tested for the Illini to sneak one out here. I do expect the guys to be better prepared than they were in the second matchup against Minnesota, where they totally fell flat in the second half. I think the game will be within reach with eight minutes to go, but ultimately Winston and McQuaid will make too many shots and Ward will be too much for Giorgi to handle.
Michigan State 85, Illinois 73
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