Although last year was perhaps the worst season in men’s basketbal program history in terms of wins and losses, it was not without its own signs of improvement during the season.
The most notable victory of Brad Underwood’s 2018-19 campaign was the win at home on Feb. 5 against then-No. 9 Michigan State, 79-74. It was the first time Illinois had beaten a top-10 team since the upset over Indiana in 2013.
Michigan State, of course, went on to the Final Four and would’ve made the championship game were it not for a miraculous year from Chris Beard and the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
The 2019-20 season is a much different landscape than last year. While Michigan State still appears to be in the upper-eschelon of the conference, Illinois has already surpassed the number of wins it had (eight) after it beat Michigan State last year.
Let’s see how the matchup between the two fares this year.
So Far this Year...
Michigan State, as is typical of Tom Izzo, has had a brutal schedule in the non-conference. They lost to Kentucky 69-62 to open the season, but went on the road to beat No. 12 Seton Hall, 76-73, on Nov. 14. The other two losses on MSU’s 10-3 record came from a Maui Invitational loss to Virginia Tech (71-66) and an 87-75 loss in the Breslin Center to No. 10 Duke.
Aside from the loss to Virginia Tech, this season seems to be fairly typical of a Tom Izzo-coached team. So far in conference, they have beaten Rutgers and Northwestern, although they were only able to make it a five-point margin of victory against the Wildcats in Evanston. Still, it goes without saying that this team led by Cassius Winston will have its sights set on another deep run in the postseason.
Players to Watch
No surprise, Winston is the leading scorer for the Spartans at 17.6 points per game. He’s also dishing out just over six assists per game, which leads the team by a wide margin. Two other players are averaging double figures for Tom Izzo: 6-foot-8 forward Xavier Tillman (13.1 points, 9.9 rebounds per game) and 6-foot-6 forward Aaron Henry (10.1 points per game). In terms of experience, size, and leadership, these are the three players Illinois will need to key in on defensively. That is not to say there are not other capable scorers on the Spartans roster (such as Gabe Brown and Rocket Watts), but these three guys will command the majority of the attention for a reason.
In terms of defending, Underwood will need to really aggrivate Cassisus Winston in order to disrupt the Spartans’ offense. In the Feb. 5 matchup, Winston had nine turnovers. He still led the team in scoring with 21 points, but that is exactly what Brad Underwood’s defense is designed to do: disrupt the opponent’s offensive flow, turn them over, and score on the fast-break. Winston still remains one of the best point guards in the game today, and his vision and ability to pass the ball are nearly unmatched.
Henry and Tillman will be a handful for the Illini frontcourt to handle. Although Kofi had a good scoring day against Missouri, he was a non-factor in the rebounding department. I was impressed with how Cuonzo Martin handled him in the post. Reed Nikko, who did not appear to be a threat offensively, caused Kofi a lot of discomfort when the Illini were on offense. Kofi need to use his size and limit Tillman’s ability to grab offensive boards.
Second-chance points were a killer for the Illini against a mediocre Missouri Tigers team, and if Illinois wants to have any sort of chance to beat the Spartans they will need to do a better job on the boards.
I imagine this is going to be a hell of a game. Certainly, Izzo and Co. are going to be anxious to prove that last year’s loss to the Illini was nothing more than a fluke and some lucky shots falling, while Underwood needs to start conference play off strong in order to lay the foundation for what Illini fans hope to be an NCAA tournament bid.
There are a few things that need to happen in order for Illinois to pull off the upset or make it close against the Spartans. The guards and ballhandlers need to limit their turnovers. This has been the biggest issue of Illinois’ offense so far this year. Illinois has the most turnovers of any Big Ten team (196, good for 15.1 per game) and, no surprise, has the lowest assist-to-turnover ratio (0.98) in the conference. In conjuction with not giving the ball away, Trent, Ayo and Andres need to hound the Michigan State guards and turn them over. Winston’s nine turnovers was a huge key to success last year.
Second, the Illini need three pointers to fall. Illinois is 10th in the conference in three-point percentage, but is tied for second-to-last with 71 three-pointers made this year. (Indiana is last with 70, and Ohio State is first with 120). The offense will need to convert open looks if they are to keep the game close.
Finally, Kofi needs to make his presence known on both ends of the floor. He needs to convert his field goals and simultaneously use his size advantage to grab boards on the other end. If he can do that and find open guys on the three-point line when the defense collapses, it will be tough for the Spartans to stop.
Unfortunately, I think that Michigan State is too good and Underwood’s offense has not quite gelled enough for the Illini to pull the upset here. I think Trent will have a good shooting game and Kofi will cause some problems, but I have not seen enough consistency on either end of the floor to believe this team can take down Tom Izzo’s Spartans.
Michigan State 86, Illinois 79