Illinois, Michigan State sit at opposite ends of Big Ten

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Photo Courtesy of Mike Mulholland

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo looks on in the second half of their game against Iowa at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, on Feb. 13, 2021.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

When Illinois and Michigan State have matched up over the past decade, it hasn’t been uncommon to see at least one of the teams ranked.

Under Tom Izzo, Michigan State’s head basketball coach, they have been the gold standard in the Big Ten. Since 2010, he’s coached Michigan State to four Big Ten Titles. The Spartans made the tournament every year in the past decade, reaching the Final Four three times. An Izzo-led team hasn’t finished outside of the top five in the Big Ten since 2007.

Conversely, Illinois has not had similar success. They haven’t won the Big Ten since 2005, and last season was their first time finishing inside the top five since 2010.

This college basketball season has been bizarre, and seeing Michigan State outside of the national picture has only added to the irregularities. But, the Spartans aren’t the only national program struggling in this COVID-19 season.

Duke is unranked and in need of a late-season winning streak just to make the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky sits at 8-13, likely needing to win the SEC Tournament to earn a tournament berth. Traditional blue-bloods North Carolina and UCLA are also unranked. This has allowed lesser programs like Baylor, Illinois, Oklahoma and Alabama to sneak into the top 10.

Head coach Brad Underwood didn’t want to speculate as to why those typical Final Four contenders are collectively struggling this year, but as someone who’s been on a Division I college basketball bench for 15 seasons, he understands the difficulties of sustaining success.

“Winning’s hard,” Underwood said. “That’s why I wanted this job because it’s a program that’s the 11th ranked program in the history of college basketball and when you have success and have history, it’s easier to do that, but it’s still really hard….when the blue bloods of the country can have off years, that shows you how hard winning is.”

For Michigan State, the down year can be attributed to a few things. They lost Cassius Winston, one of the best point guards in the nation, coupled with the loss of Xavier Tillman, one of the best defensive big men. Many teams were hurt by the abbreviated offseason, but with the lack of continuity in East Lansing, they could have used a Covid-free summer. Izzo also tested positive for Covid two weeks before the season.

“Of all the teams that needed a normal offseason, Michigan State is certainly up there,” The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn said. “They needed guys to take great strides forward in terms of Rocket Watts getting over the point guard spot. Trying to determine a four-man rotation at the five and whittling that down to a more workable unit.”

The Spartans also had multiple confirmed positive tests within the program in season, causing a shutdown of 20 days between games. They entered the pause 8-4, and have gone just 3-5 since. In a resilient Big Ten, ranking as the second-best conference ever per Ken Pom, that stretch of play will be unforgiving.

Not all hope is lost for the Spartans’ streak of 22 consecutive tournaments. A road win at Indiana on Saturday kept their season alive. Now, the Spartans have six games left: Illinois, Ohio State, at Maryland, Indiana, at Michigan, Michigan. A daunting schedule, but multiple opportunities to pick up wins against some of the league’s best teams. The Illinois game is not a “must-win,” but expect Izzo’s crew to play with a sense of urgency, knowing it could open a path for them.

“If they go 3-3 in that set, give them the Maryland game and give them the Indiana game and then let’s say they steal one against that top group,” Quinn said. “You do that and you go to Indy and you get a game or two, you’re gonna be in the conversation on Selection Sunday.”

While this has been a down year by Michigan State standards, don’t expect this to last. The Spartans should return a key chunk of this roster, backed by a top seven recruiting class nationally. The rise of Juwan Howard at Michigan and the success Underwood and Chris Holtmann are having in their fourth season has made the Big Ten a more competitive league, but doubting a coach who’s been to nine Final Fours seems nonsensical. The Spartans may not see the rankings again this season, but don’t expect that to be a trend.

On Tuesday night when Illinois and Michigan State square off for the first time this season, there will once again be a team ranked in the top five contending for a Big Ten Championship. This time, though, it won’t be the team donning green and white jerseys.

@BrandonSimberg

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