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Illinois has to stop the bleeding against Sparty

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The Illini need to flip the script from last month.

Evan McClintock // The Champaign Room

Cassius Winston and Michigan State come to town on Tuesday after dropping their last three games — at Wisconsin, at home to Penn State, and in Ann Arbor against Zavier Simpson and the Michigan Wolverines.

Currently, the Spartans are tied for third place in conference with the Iowa Hawkeyes with an 8-5 record. Illinois is tied for second with Penn State at 8-4. It would be errant of me not to say that this is a pivotal game for the Fighting Illini in particular.

After a seven-game conference winning streak, the Illini have lost their last two at Iowa and at home against Maryland. Still remaining on their schedule? Rutgers, Penn State, Indiana, Ohio State, and Iowa again. Winning at home against a good Michigan State squad and ending the losing streak would be a colossal achievement for Brad Underwood and the Fighting Illini.

Since their last matchup...

Prior to the Illini losing their last two, they had not lost since they traveled to East Lansing on Jan. 2, a 76-56 drubbing at the hands of the Spartans. In that game, Giorgi and Kofi were a combined 5-of-22 from the field, and the team hit 3-of-28 3-point attempts, good for 10.7% (not a typo).

Ayo and Alan were the bright spots for the Illini, as Dosunmu had 18 points and Griffin went 5-of-9 from the field and hit all six of his free throw attempts.

Michigan State led by just six at half, but turned on the burners and scored 40 in the final 20 minutes of the game. Not surprisingly, Cassius Winston had 21 points and six assists, while Xavier Tillman added 19 points and seven boards.

What Needs to Change

From the highlights and the stats, there were several things that were evident. Obviously, Illinois needs to shoot at a higher percentage from outside. Trent, Ayo and Alan have been much more efficient at this since the loss back in January. In addition, Kofi had an incredible offensive and defensive stretch during the win streak.

I can’t understate how incredible Cassius Winston was in this game. He just kept hitting bit shot after big shot and facilitated the ball incredibly well. Although the Spartans only went 7-of-22 from beyond the arc for the game, Winston had three of those paired with his six assists.

If the Illini want a shot at this game, it needs to start by denying Winston open shots on the outside. Xavier Tillman was a huge problem in the post and I already discussed how ineffective the Illini’s frontcourt was. Denying Winston and the Spartans’ 3-point advantage is a start, but Kofi and Giorgi need to do a better job limiting Tillman in the post. Again, just like Winston can only be slowed down so much, the same could be said of Tillman. Although he has not had a great stretch the past five games or so he’s played away from East Lansing, the Spartans are going to be hungry for a win.

Slowing down those two is only part of the equation. If the Illini execute on offense the way they did on Jan. 2, they don’t stand much of a chance. Trent and Alan need to hit their open threes, and Kofi needs to establish himself in the paint (which he has struggled with the past few games). If those things happen, there is certainly a chance the Illini can win by double digit.

Oh — and I forgot one thing. Giorgi needs to stop having pivotal turnovers down the stretch in the second half.

Prediction

I think this game is going to come down to the wire. Both teams are on losing streaks, and will be looking to get out of their respective funks Tuesday night. That being said, home-court advantage is still very much an advantage in every sense of the word, and I think the students will show out just as they did for Maryland.

Kofi will be much better suited on offense against Tillman than he was against Luka Garza and Jalen Smith, and he will be more effective earlier on in the game. Ayo had an outstanding game in these teams’ last matchup, and I expect that to be the case here as well.

If the Illini can lock down on defense late in the second half and avoid costly, momentum-shifting mistakes, they’ll be back on track and in the drivers seat for a great seed this postseason.

Illinois 74, Michigan State 70