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Know Your Opponent: Michigan State Spartans

The tables are turned as Illinois is favored on the road against the Spartans

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State went 22-9 (14-6), shared the Big Ten title with Wisconsin and Maryland, and swept the season series with Illinois a year ago. The second game, which was in Champaign, ended in heartbreak as Xavier Tillman dunked off of an offensive rebound to put the Spartans ahead for good. Ayo Dosunmu injured his knee on the next and final play of the game, adding insult to injury.

The Spartans lost their two best players from last year, Tillman and Cassius Winston, along with their second-best shooter in Kyle Ahrens.

Michigan State started the 2020-21 season strong with a 6-0 nonconference record. The Spartans then lost their first three Big Ten games, going 2-4 in conference play before postponing three games — including their game against Illinois — due to positive tests for COVID-19 in their program.

Like any Tom Izzo-coached team, the Spartans’ free throw shooting in conference play (6th in the Big Ten) and defense (9th) have been serviceable, but they’ve only scored 70.8 PPG (10th). Further, their ORtg, which measures the amount of points a team scores per 100 possessions, is 13th in the Big Ten at 100.8. To put that in context, Iowa is leading the Big Ten with an ORtg of 121.6, Illinois is fourth with 112.9, and Northwestern is 12th with 102.7.

The loss of Winston’s and Ahrens’ outside shooting has been particularly difficult for the Spartans, as they’re only making 33.3% of their 3PA (11th in the Big Ten). They’re also committing more turnovers (13.7 per game) and fouls (19.7 per game) than any other Big Ten team.

Players to Watch

Junior forward Aaron Henry has been the Spartans’ best player across the board so far, leading the team in points, assists, steals, and blocks per game. He can guard pretty much anyone on the floor, except for the traditional center. Henry’s outside shooting has regressed each of the last two years, from 38.5% as a freshman to 34.4% as a sophomore, and this year he’s shooting 29.5% on 3PA. Over the last six games, however, he’s averaging 19.2 PPG, shooting 51% on FG and 50% on 3PA.

Illinois will also have to look out for senior guard Joshua Langford. Langford was a five-star recruit in 2016, ranked as the No. 19 player and third best guard in the nation by 247Sports. He was scoring 15 PPG in 2018-19, but sustained a foot injury and redshirted during the 2019-20 season. When healthy, Langford’s been extremely dangerous from the perimeter, averaging over 40% on 3PA in each of his first three years.

Forward Joey Hauser, a sophomore transfer from Marquette, won’t be much of a threat to Illinois’ front court in the post (read: Kofi Cockburn), but he’s a career 38.8% 3P shooter. Kofi showed issues defending smaller players on the perimeter earlier in the season, but his perimeter defense has improved significantly during Illinois’ seven-game winning streak. Marcus Bingham, Jr., at 6-foot-11, 225 pounds will be difficult to score on, as he’s averaging 1.3 blocks per game in just 10 MPG.

What to Expect

We all know that anything can happen in the Big Ten, especially on the road. Is there a chance that Illinois will overlook this game on short rest with three games in five days?

Hell no, this is Sparty! It’s Go Green Go White, the Izzone. This is the team that swept us out of contention for the Big Ten title last year. I don’t care if MSU is down this year, any Illinois fan worth their salt does not like this team. And you can bet Ayo and Kofi don’t either.