Green, Spartans look to stretch Illini slide to 4

The last time the Illinois men’s basketball team lost four straight games was during the 2007-08 season, one in which they finished 16-19 and missed the NCAA tournament.

Draymond Green and the No. 9 Michigan State Spartans have the chance to extend the Illini’s current three-game losing streak when they pay visit to the Assembly Hall on Tuesday at 6 p.m.

A win for Illinois (15-6, 4-4 Big Ten) could give it another signature win over a ranked team, while a loss could push it closer toward the postseason bubble with just nine games remaining.

“It was a loss, and you have to come back and play,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said of playing after a loss. “We gotta have toughness. If you’re gonna survive in this league, you have to have toughness.”

Sophomore center Meyers Leonard said the team isn’t panicking yet, despite the rough stretch of games.

“We had some unfortunate things go down,” Leonard said. “We probably should have put them away earlier, but I don’t think we have any pressure. We’ve got to come out and play. Similar to Ohio State, they’re a very good team.”

The conference picture is far from decided, with just five games separating first place and last place. The top six teams have just a two and a half-game difference between them, with each team still in the hunt to be the top seed when the Big Ten Tournament arrives.

“It’s a big stretch here for everybody now to see if they can get a couple wins unexpectedly and get themselves up in the standings,” Weber said. “There’s a lot of craziness still to come.”

Michigan State (17-4, 6-2) enters the matchup 2-2 in its last four games following a 15-game winning streak. The Spartans split the season series last year with the Illini, with each team winning at home.

Kalin Lucas led Michigan State in scoring in both games, but with Lucas graduated, the Spartans will likely look to Green. The senior Green has been the focal point of the team’s offense, averaging 15.3 points and 3.7 assists per game.

On the defensive end, Green is equally productive, leading the team with 10.4 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 1.6 steals per game. What may be most valuable for the Spartans, though, are his intangibles.

“The best characteristics about him, I think, are his will to win, his leadership and he’s a coach on the floor,” Weber said.

With Illinois’ starting lineup consisting of four guards, junior Brandon Paul will likely be defending the 6-foot-7 Green to start the game, a task for which he thinks he’s ready.

“I take pride in my defense,” Paul said. “It’s definitely gonna be a factor (Tuesday), definitely not gonna give him any easy baskets. But at the same time play smart. He’s a smart player, he knows how to play the game and I think I’m a good matchup for him.”

If the Illini can neutralize Green, the Spartans have shown they have the pieces to still pull out a win. Weber mentioned freshman Branden Dawson could be an under-the-radar threat after scoring 14 and 16 points in his last two games.

“Draymond is so good they can kind of hide him,” Weber said. “He’s a guy you’re gonna have to keep off the boards. And they’ll post him up, post Draymond up, so they’ll give you a lot of different looks.”

Michigan State is one of the more efficient teams in the conference, averaging the most assists and third-best field goal percentage in the conference. Illinois, by comparison, is just ninth and seventh in the two categories, respectively.

Fans attending the game are encouraged to participate in “Operation Blue-Out” by wearing blue. The team is partnering with Gameday Spirit by selling T-shirts, with proceeds benefitting Coaches vs. Cancer.