Illinois basketball can’t find rhythm in loss to Michigan State

In a game dominated by trips to the free throw line, the Illini sure made this one interesting.

Down by as much as 11 points in the final five minutes and seemingly unable to get a stop, Illinois (17-10, 7-7 Big Ten) could have easily mailed it in against Michigan State (19-8, 10-4). Instead, the Illini caused havoc with defensive trapping and forced their way back into a three-point game with less than a minute remaining.

The opportunities were there to tie or take the lead, but sophomore guard Kendrick Nunn missed an open three, a layup from senior guard Rayvonte Rice went in and out and time simply ran out on Illinois. The Spartans walked away from State Farm Center with a 60-53 win, avenging a Feb. 7 loss.

Facing one of the Big Ten’s top defenses, Illinois shot just 29 percent from the field, including 12.5 percent from 3-point range. The Illini had to work a good chunk of the shot clock on every possession and few shots were falling.

Following the game, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called the matchup the most physical game he’s been a part of in 15 years. That certainly showed from the amount of free throws Illinois and Michigan shot. The two teams combined for 48 free throw attempts, and the game essentially came down to which team was better from the charity stripe.

Leading the Big Ten in free throw percentage, Illinois would normally welcome a foul shooting contest, but at 85 percent from the foul line on Sunday, Michigan State had the upper-hand in that department.

There was a seven-minute stretch in the second half when the Illini’s scoring came solely from free throw shooting. In fact, 21 of Illinois’ 53 points came from the free throw line, which didn’t give the State Farm Center crowd many exciting plays to cheer about. The referees made it an emphasis to limit the game’s physicality and it seemed as if every second-half possession ended in a foul.

After the game, Illinois coach John Groce said the Illini still have a long way to go to find their rhythm on offense, and going to the free throw line certainly didn’t help Illinois settle into any type of rhythm.

Illinois spent most of its time on the defensive end watching Michigan State score. In the final 10 minutes of the game, the Spartans scored on seven straight possessions to build the double-digit lead. During that stretch, Michigan State’s offense ran through leading scorer Denzel Valentine, who scored 16 of his game-leading 20 points in the second half.

On Illinois’ side, sophomore guard Malcolm Hill led the way with 17 points and four rebounds on 5-of-11 shooting. No other Illini had more than three field goals.

From the opening tip it was obvious how amped Michigan State was for this rematch. The Spartans did not want to lose to the Illini for the second time in a month. Branden Dawson led the Spartans charge from the outset and was all over the place. He looked to swat every shot that came his way into the third row and even got into it with Leron Black as the first half wound down.

Illinois matched Michigan State’s strong physicalitys. Having your physicality praised by Izzo is saying something, so there’s no question the Illini can be bruisers.

The Illini did a lot of things right on Sunday. They just didn’t knock down shots. Groce said he wasn’t concerned about the shots that were missed and has confidence his players can make those shots moving forward.

Being right in the thick of it in the final minute while shooting less than 30 percent and making just two 3-pointers should keep the optimists in good spirits.

Having the same number of conference wins and losses will keep the pessimists around, too.

It seems like no one is ready to punch Illinois’ ticket to the big dance just yet, so with four games remaining, the Illini have a lot to prove. Win or loss, a hard-fought game against one of the most physical teams in the Big Ten is a small step in the right direction.

Joey is a junior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @joeyfigueroa3.