With the pomp and circumstance of Tom Izzo’s 400th win in the rear view mirror, the Michigan State Spartans can look forward to getting back to business as usual this week. Next up is a trip to notoriously raucous Assembly Hall and a date with the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Early in the year, Illinois looked like a team on the rise in Big Ten play, but has since hit a few potholes in the road and fallen back in the pack. Saturday night, they sustained an ugly overtime loss against Minnesota, adding to their recent agony. Not much has been going right for Bruce Weber’s team lately, but his group always remains a force to be reckoned with on their home floor.
As the Spartans jump back into action on the hardwood, here are some keys to the game:
How Michigan State Wins: Take the crowd out of the game early by executing on offense.
Despite their last win coming in 2009, the Spartans haven’t had great luck at Assembly Hall in the past. They’ve lost the past two games there in ugly fashion, and often times, their offense sputters when they travel to Champaign. To combat this, Michigan State must assert themselves early in the game to get comfortable and quiet the crowd. They should attack the paint, get Draymond Green hitting some shots and work to establish a better guard game with Brandon Wood and Keith Appling. If Michigan State can keep things managable early and not have to fight back from a double digit deficit at halftime, they will put themselves in good shape to outlast the Fighting Illini in the second half.
How Illinois Wins: Have Brandon Paul take over.
Several times this season, Paul has looked like the best guard in the Big Ten. That was no more evident than on January 10, when he dropped 43 points on Ohio State, single handily upsetting the Buckeyes. As great as Paul was on that night and others, he’s looked lost plenty of times as well. A pedestrian 10 point home effort against Wisconsin comes to mind, where Paul was only 3-11 shooting. To beat the balanced Spartan attack, Paul must contribute one of his stellar scoring games, where he bombs three pointers, gets to the free throw line and creates his own shot. If Paul only manages to score 10-15 points against Michigan State, the Spartans will feel good about being able to overcome that low scoring output. Conversely, if Paul can’t miss, Michigan State might be buried fast.
The X-Factor: Meyers Leonard
The sophomore center has been a bright spot of consistency for Illinois all season long. He hasn’t scored less than seven points all year, and has been a double-double machine in the middle. Michigan State will have their hands full with Leonard, and if he is able to give Illinois one of his typical performances (15 points with 10 rebounds) the Spartans will have to have Derrick Nix and Aderiean Payne nullify him with a big game of their own. Leonard has been a quiet assassin this year in the league as far as big men go, but he is evolving into a star in a hurry.
Most Important “State” Stat Of The Game: 17, which represents the amount of turnovers Illinois had in their home victory over Ohio State earlier in January. Despite this sloppy play, the Illini were able to overcome tossing the ball all over the court due to Brandon Paul’s superhuman performance. Michigan State must try to force the same amount of turnovers (or more) on the road against Illinois. If they can and Paul or Meyers Leonard doesn’t play an “out of this world” type game, Michigan State should be able to control this contest with the benefit of extra possessions. Michigan State must take care of the ball themselves as well, however. Ohio State had 11 turnovers that night, including several late which aided in their defeat.
Intangibles: Illinois coming off an overtime game.
Illinois played a tiring, elongated game Saturday night against Minnesota, and had to travel back to Champaign. Michigan State, meanwhile, will come in well rested after being off for nearly a week. What mental effect might this have on the Fighting Illini, who will depend on plenty of energy at home to pull off the upset? Fans will want to watch for any signs of fatigue late from Illinois, especially if the game comes down to the wire in the second half. Lack of spring in the steps can often lead to missed jump shots and tired effort on defense. The Fighting Illini will need a full, impassioned 40 minutes to defeat one of the Big Ten’s most energetic teams.
Prediction: Be it the intimidating “Orange Krush” student section, the environment or all the overbearing orange, something about Assembly Hall always seems to bother Michigan State. Illinois is inconsistent enough to be had on their home floor this season, however, previous Illini teams have been as well, yet still defeated the Spartans rather easily. Michigan State plays better this time around on the road, but winning away from home in the Big Ten is becoming more and more impossible by the day it seems. The Fighting Illini get an important win they need to put themselves back around the NCAA Tournament bubble, and defeat Michigan State with a late flurry.
Illinois 66, Michigan State 60