Even after taking a step forward in a close loss to No. 3 Indiana, sophomore guard Travis Trice is cautious.
The No. 13 MSU men’s basketball team (17-4 overall, 6-2 Big Ten) took one of the nation’s top teams down to the wire on the road Sunday in arguably the toughest venue in college basketball before falling short, 75-70. It was widely acknowledged as a turning point for a team that’s been lackluster for much of the season.
But as the Spartans prepare to welcome Illinois (15-6, 2-5) to Breslin Center Tonight (7 p.m., ESPN), Trice said it’s imperative the team doesn’t let one loss snowball into anything more, as was the case a season ago.
Head coach Tom Izzo, on Bruce Weber not being at Illinois:
“He’s got a real good team at Kansas State and John (Groce) has done a good job there, I think (at Illinois). So maybe things always work out, but Bruce was one of my closer friends in the league – maybe my closest, because we were in it almost 25 years worth.”
Sophomore guard Travis Trice, on the importance of getting the victory:
“I mean, you can’t take any games for granted. I think last year we went into Northwestern and we looked at it as ‘we’re gonna win,’ but we overlooked it and we took a second loss too, and we can’t do that now.”
Senior center Derrick Nix, on which team Illinois reminds him of:
“I guess a UConn-type team. They remind me of UConn where they’re pretty guard-dominant, and their bigs can go as well but it’s pretty guard-dominant.”
“Anytime we had a loss in conference, it was like back-to-back losses with Northwestern and Michigan,” Trice said. “We just don’t want to dwell on it. I mean, be mad that we lost but try to move on because you don’t want one to turn into two or three.”
In their first season under head coach John Groce, who replaced longtime coach Bruce Weber after he was dismissed in March 2012, the Fighting Illini have competed reasonably well in a difficult Big Ten conference.
Starting with a talented mix of guards in the rotation, the Illini find much of the team’s offensive strength in perimeter shooting. Illinois has attempted the most 3-pointers in the Big Ten (517), having at least 44 more attempts than any other team and 216 more than the Spartans.
Against a team heavily reliant on the inexact science of perimeter shooting, MSU head coach Tom Izzo said the key is understanding the opponent by disrupting the flow of the offense and winning the battle on the boards.
“I think everybody does what they do against us,” Izzo said. “Everybody scouts. … So I think more people take things away now. And you are going to take away their strengths. That is the one advantage I think we have.”
The catalyst of the Illini offense is senior guard Brandon Paul, the conference’s third-leading scorer behind Ohio State guard Deshaun Thomas and Michigan guard Trey Burke.
Paul averages 17.9 points per contest, which is heavily reliant on his shooting
from beyond the arc. In 21 games, Paul has hit 48-of-141 (34 percent) of his 3-point shots, good for a tie for the sixth-most makes in the conference.
Having watched film on Illinois, senior center Derrick Nix said the Spartans will look to defend Paul and the rest of the Illini along the perimeter.
“They shoot a lot of 3’s,” Nix said.
“They got some good big fellas inside, but they’re more a perimeter team and they shoot 3’s so we should be able to dominate the glass.”
With one game in a span of nine days, the Spartans will be looking to get value out of the matchup with Illinois. The break in game action will serve the team well, as five of the team’s final 10 games come against teams currently ranked in the AP
But so the story goes with past Izzo teams, the head coach said his team is beginning to improve and is gearing up for its annual late-season peak.
“I mean, as we always laugh about — my teams don’t usually peak early — this year what will happen (the next) seven or eight games,” Izzo said. “I don’t know but I think if we keep getting better, we are going to be a better team at the end of the year than we’ve been.”