Spartans crush shorthanded Illini basketball in lopsided fashion


Spartans coach Tom Izzy talking to Brandon Dawson during last season’s Illinois-Michigan State game at State Farm Center

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

It was fair to suspect the game between Illinois and Michigan State might get ugly about an hour before it started.

That’s when it was reported that Illini leading scorer Kendrick Nunn didn’t make the trip to East Lansing due to the birth of his son, and when any smart gambler should have bet his or her mortgage on No. 5 Michigan State covering the game’s 13.5-point spread.

Illini’s fans fears were confirmed soon after Malcolm Hill, Illinois’ other major scoring threat, picked up two fouls in the first 2:30. The Spartans jumped out to an early 16-7 lead, which soon swelled to 25-15 before ballooning to 47-22 at halftime. Michigan State led by as many as 31 in the second half on its way to a 79-54 win over an outmanned and outclassed Illinois team Thursday night.

The Spartans improved to 15-1 and 2-1 in Big Ten play with the win, and Illinois fell to 8-8 and 0-3 with the loss. It’s the Illini’s first 0-3 start to conference play since 2008.

There isn’t much to say about this one that isn’t reflected in the final score. It was a blowout. A shellacking. A nationally televised beat down that stunk up ESPN’s Thursday night primetime spot.

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Nunn’s family obligation trumps a basketball game 100 times out of a 100, and as soon as he was ruled out, the Illini had pretty much no chance. They might have been able to make it a game with his 18.5-point-per-game boost in the lineup. But with Nunn out and big men Leron Black and Mike Thorne Jr. still in street clothes due to injury, the Illini were destined to get exposed.

Somehow, Michigan State managed to out-perform the disparity in talent on the floor. The Spartans were without their best player Denzel Valentine, so they resorted to pounding the Illini inside, scoring 50 points in the paint. When they got bored with that, they let Bryn Forbes, Eron Harris and Matt McQuaid combine to hit six threes. Forbes led the Spartans with 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting.

For the Illini, the only redeeming performances were Maverick Morgan’s career-high 15 points and Khalid Lewis’ eight after returning from a mumps diagnosis. The rest? Burn the tape. Forget about it. Hill and freshmen Michael Finke and Jalen Coleman-Lands needed to pick up the scoring slack in Nunn’s absence, but they combined for just 21 points on 30 percent shooting.

This was a game where you’d like to see some growth in the midst of the blowout, but there wasn’t much to speak of. Illinois’ transition defense was putrid, its half-court D wasn’t much better, and it was out of the game by the under-12 timeout in the first half. I’m not sure how they’ll fully regroup from this with No. 20 Purdue and its towering front line coming to town Sunday, but getting Nunn back will at least help.

But Nunn or not, these are the kinds of results that Illini fans won’t put up with for very long, and head coach John Groce’s corner will only get lonelier if blowouts pile up in Big Ten play. He has to figure out how to keep his team inspired and in games going forward.

It won’t get much easier against the Boilers.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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