Senior guard Cassius Winston entered back into the starting lineup Thursday for Michigan State after missing last game with due to a minor bone bruise in his left knee. He didn’t miss a beat in the Spartans' 76-56 victory, going back and forth with Illinois sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu.
"It's fun," Winston said. "That's the point of playing places like this, you get to see the best players, you get to compete against players, you get to play this game at the highest level. For him to go out there do his thing, me to kind of come back and still do my thing, that's good. That makes the game a lot more fun."
Winston came out hot, drilling a three on the Spartans' first possession and scoring their first five points. Carrying that momentum onward and throughout the game, he would lead his team in scoring.
He turned in a well-rounded performance in his return, scoring 21 points on 50% shooting and dishing out six assists. Adding on to his offensive surge, Winston also turned in four rebounds and a steal.
Spartans couldn’t find answer for Ayo Dosunmu
Illinois had their answer offensively for Winston: Dosunmu, who led the Illini to an upset win over MSU last season.
Despite struggling at times from the field, when Dosunmu found a lane he was unstoppable. The guard slashed through the Spartans offense with quickness and finesse, finding a majority of his points in the paint, scoring 13 in the first half alone.
Dosunmu finished with 18 points and one assist.
“He's a talented player," Winston said of his counterpart. "Once he get downhill he can use his length, athleticism to make plays and finish. He's got a good touch around the basket."
The six-foot-five guard crashed the boards too. Working his way into the paint and the right spots at the right time, Dosunmu pulled down eight rebounds.
Marcus Bingham Jr. and Xavier Tillman keep Illinois' bigs quiet
For what the Spartans couldn’t answer with Dosunmu, they made up for in other ways against the Fighting Illini’s forwards.
With eyes on back-to-back Freshman of the Week seven-footer Kofi Cockburn, sophomore forward Marcus Bingham Jr. stole the show.
"If I was a hockey guy, I'd put my star on a guy that didn't score a point, and that was Marcus Bingham. He blocked some shots, he got some rebounds, he's starting to look like a player," coach Tom Izzo said.
Very rarely does Bingham Jr. find someone who can match-up with him in sheer size. Cockburn had an inch on him and is listed at 75 pounds heavier, though Izzo said the margin is likely closer to 85.
But Bingham Jr. handled himself. Putting Cockburn in foul trouble early, the Spartans would keep the 16 point-scorer to just 2-of-10 shooting and five points.
"We knew that he was really, really good around the basket when he has enough room to dunk it or get a couple bodies and lay the ball in," junior forward Xavier Tillman said. "We wanted to force him as far away from the basket as we could to force him to use that hook shot and use a little bit more finesse."
Bingham Jr. would send Cockburn and Illinois packing several times, ending with five blocks on the night.
Adding on to the show he put on defensively, Bingham Jr. rebounded better than he has all season, snagging 12 boards.
"I feel like I did my job, coach saw that tonight," the soft-spoken Bingham said. "(I'll) just try to bring it into the next game."
With Cockburn silenced, Tillman would assume the role of keeping Illinois' other big man quiet.
Sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili struggled against Tillman all night. Despite having strong post moves in his arsenal, he couldn’t get anything to drop.
Bezhanishvili would take his fair share of shots, being trusted with 12 attempts, but he wouldn’t make anything of it against the Spartan forwards, making just three field goals and missing all three of his free throw attempts as well.
Tillman produced four blocks and one steal on defense.
Tillman turns strong defensive performance alongside an offensive explosion
Tillman said his stomach didn't feel right pregame, and he at one point asked to come out because he was afraid he was going to get sick on the court. It didn't seem to have any effect on his performance though.
Adding onto his lockdown defense, Tillman excelled on offense. Scoring 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting and a perfect 4-for-4 from the free throw line, he was the definition of efficient.
"Xavier's all around game was unbelievable, especially considering how he felt, so really proud of him," Izzo said.
Tillman would produce for himself and for the players around him, creating six assists as well.
"Xavier I thought was really good because he had six assists to go along with all the other things he did," Izzo said.