Preparation against Spartans under way

By Lucas Deal

The Illinois basketball team will face Michigan State for the second time in less than a week Friday at 8:10 p.m. when they take on the Spartans in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

The Illini beat the Spartans 75-68 in East Lansing on Saturday and 60-50 at the Assembly Hall on Jan. 5, but Illini head coach Bruce Weber still thinks his team should be ready for a fight from the Spartans.

“It’s tough to beat a team three times,” he said on Monday. “You have some confidence after beating them twice, but they also have some extra motivation. I hope our guys have motivation like their players will.”

The Illini enter this season’s tournament as the No. 3 seed. After back-to-back conference regular-season titles in 2004 and 2005, the Illini finished this season’s conference schedule at 11-5, one game behind Ohio State. Iowa also finished 11-5 and was granted the tournament’s two-seed via a league tiebreaker.

Michigan State finished the regular season 20-10, 8-8 in the conference. As the No. 6 seed in the tournament, the Spartans knocked off 11th seeded Purdue 70-58 on Thursday to advance into tonight’s quarterfinals.

The Spartans are led by second-team all-Big Ten selections Shannon Brown and Paul Davis and third-team member Maurice Ager.

“When all of our guys produce, we’re a pretty good team,” Weber said. “But Michigan State is a good team too, and when you play a team a third time there’s really nothing you can do that they don’t know about. We’ve played each other twice – we know how each team plays.”

Recently, though, Illinois has been playing much better.

Last weekend on Michigan State’s Senior Day, the Illini used a 12-0 run midway through the second half to jump ahead by double figures and held on for the win. Seniors and first-team all-Big Ten selections Dee Brown and James Augustine combined for 30 points, but it was Illinois’ underclassmen and bench that impressed Weber the most.

“Early in the year, Dee and James felt like the team was on their back,” he said. “But now, the other guys are starting to produce and we’re all playing better.”

And yet, Weber’s not all smiles.

This is the first time in his three years at Illinois in which the Illini have not locked up at least half of the conference title hardware entering the conference tournament. Weber said if he had a choice, he’d rather win the regular season crown, but now that that chance is gone, he wants to make sure his team takes home the tournament championship.

“The regular season is more of a marathon and the tournament is more of a sprint,” he said. “I’d rather win the regular season title because it’s such a grind, but tournament gives us a chance to at least claim something.”

A tourney title would also help solidify Illinois’ NCAA Tournament seeding. At 25-5, the Illini should be no worse than a No. 3 seed in the tournament, but when asked, Weber said he doesn’t think a two-seed or even a one-seed is out of the question.

“If we could win the (Big Ten) tournament there’s a chance it could happen,” he said. “We are playing our best basketball of the season right now.”