Pivotal game awaits Illinois basketball against Michigan State

If you take a quick look at Saturday’s matchup between Michigan State and Illinois on paper, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the Illini’s chances. 

The game is at Michigan State and John Groce’s Illini squad has had real trouble away from home all season. Illinois is 1-5 in true road games this season, its lone victory coming in front of thousands of orange-clad fans at Northwestern. 

With an 11 a.m. start time, the game will tip off earlier than the Illini have played all season. It’s not an ideal situation for a team coming off travel and playing its third game in a week. Not to mention Michigan State is notoriously tough to beat at home. 

Illinois might also be short-handed once again, with leading scorer Rayvonte Rice and shooting guard Aaron Cosby still indefinitely suspended as of Friday, according to Groce. Even if Rice and Cosby took the floor, they’d likely be rusty and less effective than completely healthy versions of themselves. 

All things considered, it looks like a recipe for a potentially ugly afternoon in East Lansing. 

But there’s a reason the games are decided on wood, not paper. And if you look a little deeper, there are some reasons to like Illinois’ prospects of taking Sparty down on Saturday. 

Losing Rice to a hand injury on Jan. 5 forced the Illini to accelerate their evolution as a team and they have since morphed into a new squad with a new identity. Their starting lineup is no longer stacked almost entirely with juniors and seniors. Instead, sophomore point guard Jaylon Tate is running the show, and freshman forward Leron Black is starting as well.

Ahmad Starks has been more effective since getting minutes at the two position when Tate runs point. Sophomore forwards Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert have had bursts of contribution as well while providing much needed minutes backing up starting center Nnanna Egwu.

Most importantly, sophomores Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill have been phenomenal, filling the scoring vacuum left behind when Rice went down. They’re pouring in a combined 31.1 points per game in conference play, which is good for the highest conference scoring average in the country between two sophomores among the six major conferences.

The result? Illinois is 5-3 since the Rice injury and still very much alive for an NCAA tournament bid. Groce’s guys are gaining confidence in their new style of play, and you’d better believe Groce will have them going to Michigan State expecting to win. 

And there’s good reason for them to be confident. Groce’s Illini teams have played well at Michigan State in the past, and last February, a less-talented Illinois team beat a Spartans team at the Breslin Center that had much more talent than they’ll have on Saturday. 

The Spartans are no slouches, and Tom Izzo is an excellent coach whose teams should never be taken lightly. But Michigan State lost Adreian Payne and Keith Appling to graduation and Gary Harris to the NBA Draft.

Junior Denzel Valentine has slid into the scorer’s role this season, averaging 14.4 points a game. Senior guard Travis Trice can fill it up too, but stopping senior forward Branden Dawson will be the biggest concern for the Illini. Dawson is a beast who averages a double-double, and Egwu and Black need to do their best to limit Dawson while staying out of foul trouble, especially on the offensive glass.

Spartan forwards Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling are a load inside, and it could be a long day for the Illini if they don’t defend the interior and box out. 

Saturday is another opportunity for Illinois to make a leap. If the Illini can pull it off, it would add a much-needed road win to their NCAA tournament resume and give them momentum heading down the stretch. A win would also put them at above .500 in conference play at this point in the season for the first time in five years. 

Illinois has yet to make that type of leap this season, and all of its signature conference wins have come in a “don’t-lose-or-else” scenario. No, a loss Saturday wouldn’t end the Illini’s tourney hopes. 

But it would put them right back in the position of needing future wins to make up for lost ground. 

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.