Illinois brings 2-game winning streak into Michigan State

Illinois’ Tracy Abrams attempts a layup during the game against Michigan State at State Farm Center on Jan. 18. The Illini lost, 78-62.

Last time Illinois basketball played Michigan State, the Spartans outrebounded the Illini by a 38-25 margin. Tom Izzo’s squad was playing without key big man Adreian Payne and still won 78-62 at State Farm Center on Jan. 18.

Illinois center Nnanna Egwu contributed just two rebounds that game. With Payne now back in the lineup after missing the better part of a month with a sprained foot, Egwu knows two rebounds isn’t going to cut it this time around.

The Illini head to Michigan State on Saturday looking to avenge the loss and extend its winning streak to three.

“We need to match their physicality, they’re one of the most physical teams in the country,” Egwu said. “It’s our duty as a team to match their physicality and match them on the backboard.”

It seems head coach John Groce has everyone in the Illini lineup focusing on crashing the boards.

“They’re big boys,” freshman forward Malcolm Hill said. “They go hard on the offensive and defensive glass.” 

The Spartans finally appear to be back to full strength after weeks of struggling through injuries. It’s looking like Brandon Dawson, who’s missed nine games with a broken hand, could be back in the lineup as well. 

An injury-riddled Michigan State is still a good basketball team. A fully healthy Spartan squad is a great basketball team.

“When they have full strength and strength in numbers, I think they’re at an elite level,” Groce said. 

On the positive side for Groce, his squad is coming off its most complete games of the season. This might be the first time all year the Illini have been clicking on the offensive and defensive ends at the same time. Back-to-back wins over Minnesota and Nebraska have boosted morale after dropping 10 of 11 games.

On the opposing side, the Spartans have not won back-to-back games in more than a month. After a loss to in-state rival Michigan on Sunday, Michigan State finds itself a game back of the Wolverines in the Big Ten race and — with only three games remaining — can’t afford to falter.

If the Illini are going to win this game, they have to take it. Michigan State isn’t going to make it easy for them.

“They never beat themselves, they’re always in the right position,” Groce said. “They’re difficult to score against and it’s difficult to get easy baskets against them.”

“We know they’re talented one through five,” Hill added. “They have playmakers and shot makers.”

Four players average double-figure points for the No. 18 ranked Spartans: Payne, Dawson, Gary Harris and Keith Appling. At 17.3 team assists per game, Michigan State shares the ball better than anyone in the Big Ten and better than all but four teams in the nation.

Though Payne and Dawson have been out of the lineup for stretches, Groce said it didn’t cause any scouting problems. 

“We have familiarity with what each player can do,” Groce said. “One of the things about them is they have a system and style of play that they’ve been consistent with throughout the decade.”

Consistency is what Illinois has seen in its past two games. But the Illini will need to extend that consistency Saturday if they want to pull of the upset.

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.