On Tuesday, Illinois will face another tough foe in Michigan State in a heavyweight Big Ten battle in Champaign.
The Spartans are riding high after a victory in Madison against the Badgers, giving them sole possession of first place in conference, while Illinois is coming off two straight conference defeats in a barn-burner double overtime affair against Purdue and a hapless, deflating road loss to Maryland without All-American big man Kofi Cockburn.
With Cockburn and Andre Curbelo’s availabilities up in the air, the Illini will have their hands full with a deep and talented Spartan team.
This Season So Far
The Spartans once again have found themselves atop the conference standings, and they’ve been doing it differently from the typical physical, tough interior game that most Izzo teams possess. The Spartan attack is paced by leading scorer Gabe Brown (13.6 PPG), who has grown his game and improved each year in East Lansing. Transfer point guard Tyson Walker has infused playmaking with his over 5 assists per game (3rd in the Big Ten) into a Spartan team that has lacked a steady point guard presence since Cassius Winston graduated. Marcus Bingham makes his impact defensively with 2.6 blocks per game (3rd in the Big Ten). Freshman guard Max Christie has come in and made an impact scoring with 10.5 PPG and 36% three-point shooting.
In a conference filled with players on preseason watch lists and pre-season award honors, this Spartan team lacks that type of star power but makes up for it with the typical grit and balance that Izzo coached teams always have.
The Spartans are third in the conference in rebounding (40 RPG), just behind the first-place Illini (42.1 RPG), and sit second in three-point shooting at over 39% as a team, ahead of even the sharp-shooting Illini (37.6%). They also currently rank 3rd in assists (16.8 APG) as a team and 1st in blocks (6.4 BPG), thanks to Bingham’s influence on the interior.
Especially if Kofi Cockburn is unable to go again, the Illini will have all the more difficult time dealing with a team that shares the ball well, makes life difficult on the interior defensively with a dynamic shot blocker, and scores effectively from deep with their by-committee approach.
Their blend of experience and talented youth has come together to create a strong unit for this edition of Izzo’s Spartans.
The result in this one will be heavily influenced on the status of Curbelo and Cockburn. Their impact on the game can be understated in terms of scoring, rebounding, and playmaking for others.
The Spartans will compete on the boards and command a presence on the interior defensively and Cockburn would go a long way to helping negate that. The Maryland game showed how limited the Illini attack is when they lack an interior game, and finding a way to recommit to that will be key against the Spartans to get better looks from the perimeter.
Without Cockburn and Curbelo both playing at a high level, the Illini will likely struggle to get good offensive looks and run effective sets against this deep and athletic Spartan team. With both, the outlook changes considerably as the attack becomes multidimensional and opens up the floor for both the wings and the frontcourt.
The Illini should be in this one down to the wire with a renewed energy and effort to reverse their two game skid.