Illini embrace role of spoiler against MSU



By Jason Grodsky

With games against Big Ten front runners Michigan State and Indiana in the next eight days, the Illinois basketball team is looking to make a statement and make the road to the 2008 Big Ten regular season title a bit bumpier for the teams in contention.

The Illini know they would have to go on an improbable run to make the NCAA Tournament, and they aren’t denying they will most likely have to win the Big Ten Tournament to squeak into the field of 65.

But for now, the Illini (10-11, 2-6 Big Ten) are embracing the role of spoiler, something the team hasn’t had to do for nearly nine years. The first stop on the spoiler train will be a match up in East Lansing, Mich., against No. 8-ranked Michigan State (18-2, 6-1).

“This is where we have to embrace that role and get some positive things going,” head coach Bruce Weber said. “If there’s one part of the schedule that is positive for us it’s the next two weeks.”

Weber feels his team is the best 10-11 team in the country and is capable of beating quality opponents. But the one thing that has held this team back has been its lack of consistent play.

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“We have to find a way to get a victory on the road at some place we’re not supposed to,” Weber said. “Maybe it will come Wednesday night. But it will not be easy. If we’re going to beat (Michigan State) we’re going to have to have nine or ten guys play to their potential and play consistent.”

Beating the Spartans won’t be a walk in the park, especially on the road.

Since the 2002-03 season, the Spartans have lost just six regular season games in East Lansing. But the Illini are no strangers to beating Michigan State in their barn.

Of Michigan State’s six losses at the Breslin Center the past five seasons, two have come at the hands of Weber’s squad, and the Illini have won three of their last five games on the road against the Spartans.

“We haven’t pulled out a big road win all year,” junior guard Trent Meacham said. “It’s a big game for us and we have the confidence that we can pull it out. We have to show that we can beat a team like that.”

Michigan State is led by its senior leader Drew Neitzel and sophomore Raymar Morgan.

Neitzel was voted the Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year and is coming off a week that saw him earn Big Ten Player of the Week honors with an average of 19 points, six assists and four rebounds in a pair of Spartan victories over Northwestern and Michigan.

“(Neitzel)’s a tough player and that’s one of the things that makes him a great player,” Meacham said. “He never stops and will come at you for 40 minutes, and now this year he has a lot more help than he did last year.”

A big part of that help comes from Morgan. After being selected to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team by the coaches last season, Morgan is now the Spartans’ leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game.

“We have to prepare a lot for Neitzel and Morgan,” senior forward Shaun Pruitt said. “They’re having great years and we’ll have to be focused in order to pull a win out. We’ve seen that we can lose to anybody, but we’ve proven we can beat anybody so it’s not far-fetched at all to believe we can finish strong.”