If there’s one thing Tom Izzo is happy about, it’s that his team is taking the court in March.
The No. 18 Spartan men’s basketball team (22-6 overall, 11-4 Big Ten) hosts Illinois (16-12 overall, 5-10 Big Ten) at 4 p.m. today in the team's penultimate game at Breslin Center after an injury-riddled and difficult February.
“They’ve won two in a row now,” Izzo said. “They changed their lineup a few games ago. We beat them down there earlier in the year, they’re a different team, we’re a different team, and I’m looking forward to getting everybody back.”
Illinois is coming off back-to-back wins against Minnesota and Nebraska, ending the Cornhuskers’ seven-game winning streak Wednesday night.
The Fighting Illini boast the second-best defense in the Big Ten, holding teams to just 62.6 points per game.
On the other end of the floor, Rayvonte Rice is in the top ten in the conference in scoring at 16 points per game, and has led the team in scoring in 15 out of the team’s 28 games.
Another player Izzo said he’ll be looking out for is freshman Kendrick Nunn, who has been the leading scorer in Illinois’ last two wins and also was recruited by MSU.
The Spartans will welcome back junior forward Branden Dawson this weekend, who missed the last nine games after breaking his hand. MSU is 4-5 in that stretch.
“It’s been good and getting the flow back with the team and getting back in shape,” Dawson said. “My teammates pushed me and I felt great out there.”
Dawson will play with a brace on his right hand, harkening back to the days when Morris Peterson played with a cast on his hand.
The biggest part of Dawson’s game that MSU has been missing has been the defense. The Spartans allowed all but two of its opponents to shoot better than 45 percent in the nine games he missed.
Sophomore forward Matt Costello said this team knows each other well enough to come together in a short amount of time, but Dawson takes this team to the next level.
“In practice the past two days, he’s able to guard so many people,” Costello said. “Just having that versatility defensively, that’s what we’ve been missing. We’re all pretty good defenders, but BJ’s a freak. When he’s on the floor, that puts more pressure on the other team.”
Dawson broke his hand after slamming it on the table following a comment from ESPN commentator Dan Dakich, and Dakich is on the call of the Illinois game Saturday afternoon.
Izzo’s got everybody back, so he said it’s time put their nose to the grindstone and concentrate on the month of March.
“All they’ve been through, it’s time to start looking forward,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to do and focus on what we’re going to control, and that’s about it. We’ve had the week off and spent two days working on nothing except Michigan State.”