PREVIEW: MSU battles Illinois while jostling for seeding position
MSU men’s basketball (18-11, 10-6 Big Ten) is riding a major high after the team's Senior Night win over then-No. 16 Wisconsin.
Now that MSU is most likely in the Big Dance, the Spartans will start their March with a potential trap game against the Illinois Fighting Illini (17-12, 7-9 Big Ten).
The Fighting Illini have remained under the radar in the Big Ten as they mount their final push of the season.
Winners of three-straight games, Illinois polished off Iowa by six points, Northwestern by 16 points and Nebraska by 16 points. In its 73-57 win over the Cornhuskers, Illinois shot 50 percent from 3-point territory and recorded 17 assists on 25 baskets.
The blue and orange are led by senior guard Malcolm Hill. He averages 17 points per game, which is No. 5 in the Big Ten.
Senior center Maverick Morgan is the only Fighting Illini outside of Hill who scores in double figures. This season Morgan is averaging 10 points per game, his season-high of 19 points came against Missouri.
An experienced team, Illinois has six seniors on its roster, one of which is Tracy Abrams, who started his career as a Fighting Illini in 2011. Now six years later, Abrams sat out the entire 2014-15 season with a knee injury and 2015-16 season with a torn left Achilles tendon.
Relieved over a stressful Senior Night, head coach Tom Izzo said the Spartans are reaching for the double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. Jostling with four teams: University of Michigan, Northwestern, Maryland and Minnesota, the Spartans control their own destiny to earn a double-bye in the Big Ten.
“This is a team with some very, very good players,” Izzo said. “Their experience with those three seniors, yeah they have had some ups and downs, but I think some of it was the schedule early. You’re talking a sixth-year senior point guard that played really well last night. You’re talking about (Malcolm) Hill, who has been one of the better players in our league almost since he came in. Maverick Morgan is now playing some of his best basketball.”
MSU will look to take advantage inside with a steady load of freshman forward Nick Ward and freshman forward Miles Bridges.
Against Ethan Happ and the Badgers, Ward scored 22 points on 9-for-12 shooting and corralled nine rebounds to lead MSU. Bridges followed just behind Ward, scoring 17 points with seven rebounds.
The Spartans will have a small reprieve inside, despite the usual height disadvantage because of the inability of Illinois to block shots. This season, Illinois is the worst shot blocking team in the Big Ten.
“The biggest problem with centers or forwards now is, ‘Can they defend the ball screens?’” Izzo said. “Especially if you have guards that aren’t great at it and then your post guys are poor at it. That is a problem. He is definitely making some progress getting up there. But I think Nick is ready to take another big step, because he’s been a lot more focused and a lot more coachable. I don’t mean he wasn’t, I think now he understands ‘why’, which is normal.”
MSU against Illinois will take place in Champaign, Ill. at the State Farm Center. The game will tipoff at 9 p.m. and will be televised on Big Ten Network.