Illini grab momentum heading into matchup with Spartans

Illinois has caught Michigan State in a rut.

The No. 5 Spartans will enter the Assembly Hall on Saturday night fresh off their first Big Ten loss and perhaps without their star performer, Kalin Lucas. They were 9-0 in conference play before losing at No. 16 Wisconsin on Tuesday, where Lucas sprained his right ankle and remains questionable for Saturday’s contest.

Add ESPN’s College GameDay and the Illini’s current three-game winning streak to the mix, and head coach Bruce Weber’s squad has the momentum in its corner.

“Hopefully we can live up to what we expect of a tremendous crowd,” Weber said.

Junior forward Mike Davis said it’s about time things are looking up — and down for Michigan State.

“We’re happy that they lost because it puts us in a better position to maybe win the league now,” Davis said. “I think if we win this game, it’ll put us in good contention to win the league.”

But Davis said he hopes to have Lucas, who leads Michigan State with 15.6 points per game, out on the court to show the Illini can defeat the full Spartan cast.

Meanwhile, Illinois sits on the other end of the seesaw.

The Illini’s leader, junior guard Demetri McCamey, has taken the reins as of late, scoring a combined 34 points in his last two games.

“His confidence is through the roof right now,” Davis said of McCamey. “He just goes out there and plays. He has no problem with shooting his shot … Coaches embrace that.”

Freshman guard D.J. Richardson said everybody’s confidence is finally rising together.

“I think we have a team full of players that are becoming leaders now,” Richardson said. “I’ve seen (McCamey) take the team on his shoulders. Him and Bill Cole have been playing big roles for us.”

Despite an eight-point victory at Iowa on Wednesday, the team was a little streaky at times shooting.

“Sometimes we just dribble too much on the wing,” Davis said. “We can’t let the shot clock go down like it did (Wednesday) … We’ve got to get good shots for the guards coming off screens.”

Richardson said the team must play like it did against Vanderbilt on Dec. 8, when it got off to a fast start to amp up the crowd and McCamey put up 23 points.

The Michigan State matchup is the first of the final eight-game stretch for the Illini — all of which are against teams in the top half of the Big Ten.

“I think we can go 6-2,” Davis said. “To be honest, that’s my goal for the team, to go 6-2 in these last eight games. I think we’re very capable of doing it if we rebound and play like we’ve been playing. The offense is not a problem. We’ve been scoring pretty well. Demetri’s been taking over the game, and Tisdale gets steady down low.”

Although Davis remains focused on Saturday night’s matchup and is still trying to earn back his spot in the starting lineup before then, he does have a sliver of excitement for the GameDay events that precede it.

“I’m probably going with the Krush,” Davis said of Saturday morning’s GameDay show. “It will be a fun atmosphere just jumping around in there, going in there and having fun. I’ve probably got to get there early if I want to get on the floor. Hopefully, I can get to the tunnel and sneak down there and meet Jay Bilas or someone like that.”

For Richardson, the morning’s events won’t be as much of a distraction.

“I really haven’t watched too much GameDay in a couple of years because when I went to prep school I didn’t really watch that much TV,” Richardson said.

If the pendulum truly has shifted toward the Illini, ESPN announcer Hubert Davis will award them with an ‘A’ on Saturday.

“I like Hubie,” Davis said. “He’s funny. He’s my guy. He always gives us good grades when he talks about us.”