Illini basketball heads to Michigan State

Malcolm Hill fondly remembers the last time the Illinois men’s basketball team was in East Lansing, Mich.

Hill recalled enjoying the arena and the energy of the opposing fans. Most importantly, he remembered scoring 10 points in Illinois’ 53-46 win over Michigan State. 

“It was a fun experience, especially winning,” Hill said. 

Both the Illini and the Spartans are vastly different teams than they were a year ago. Hill hopes there’s more memories made in East Lansing this year as Illinois (15-8, 5-5 Big Ten) looks for its third straight conference win against Michigan State (15-7, 5-3) on Saturday. 

Although some of the Spartans players are different, senior center Nnanna Egwu said the Spartan’s style is the same. 

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“They’re still physical,” Egwu said. “They do what they normally do: execute their plays and they’re a really smart team. This year I’ll say that they’re a little bit faster offensively. They push the ball down the floor.”

For the Illini to come out with a win, they will need to start by shutting down Branden Dawson. The senior forward is currently averaging 10 rebounds per game and, along with Hill, was voted Big Ten co-Player of the Week for his play last week.

Head coach John Groce praised Dawson and the other Spartan big men for their ability to turn rebounds into transition points. Michigan State ranks first in both offensive rebounding and rebound differential in the Big Ten this season.

“Their execution, their toughness, their rebounding, their transition, all of those things will be great challenges for us tomorrow,” Groce said.

The Illini have done a good job of rebounding as a team. Illinois has three players averaging more than five rebounds per game — the team will need to step up its intensity on the glass to compete with Michigan State.

“What he’s doing is unbelievable,” Hill said. “It’s going to take a team effort to keep all of them off the glass.” 

Stopping the Spartans 3-point shooters will also be a challenge. Michigan State ranks second in the Big Ten in 3-point percentage. 

With guards Aaron Cosby and Rayvonte Rice still suspended indefinitely, the majority of Illinois’ offense will run through Hill and the point guard duo of Jaylon Tate and Ahmad Starks.

Hill proved himself a legitimate first option on the offensive end as of late, with 27 points against Penn State. But for the Illini to come out of East Lansing with a win, the team will need for Starks and Tate to produce as well.

Luckily for the Illini, both Tate and Starks have adapted their playing styles to make it easier to play alongside each other. 

“We play off each other,” Tate said of Starks. “It’s always good to have really good ball handlers on the court at the same time. Ahmad’s a really good shooter. I can always find him.” 

While it will be hard for the Illini to take a second game in as many years from the Spartans on the road, Tate knows just how much this win could mean to Illinois moving forward this season. 

“This is a really good Michigan state team,” Tate said. “So pulling off this win would be big for us.”

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @IlliniSportsGuy.