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Preview: MSU men's basketball looks to continue road momentum against Illinois

January 25, 2022
<p>Then-sophomore forward Aaron Henry (11) defends Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu (left). The Spartans defeated the Illini, 76-56, at the Breslin Student Events Center on Jan. 2, 2020.</p>

Then-sophomore forward Aaron Henry (11) defends Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu (left). The Spartans defeated the Illini, 76-56, at the Breslin Student Events Center on Jan. 2, 2020.

After Michigan State’s top 10 victory on the road over Wisconsin, the Spartans will have another chance to notch an impressive road win when they travel to Champaign, Illinois Tuesday to take on No. 24 Illinois. 

MSU came out with one of its most complete performances in Madison after its disappointing loss to Northwestern on Jan 15. It was a balanced performance from MSU, with six players scoring in double digits while the team’s leading scorer senior forward Gabe Brown only scored three points. 

“Last week was a disappointing week,” MSU head coach Tom Izzo said. “And I think we retooled and looked at things and had some good practice time and a little bit more time. I thought we played pretty well for all but the first five minutes in a game that was in front of a very hostile crowd.”

With the win, Michigan State moved into first place in the Big Ten with a 6-1 conference record and climbed back to No. 10 in the AP poll after briefly falling after the loss to Northwestern. MSU sits a half-game ahead of Illinois and Wisconsin, who are both 6-2 in the conference. 

While Michigan State came away with one of the best wins in the country this season, the road only gets tougher. MSU will start the week off with the trip to Illinois before returning home to host their rival Michigan — who has won two straight games handily — on Saturday. MSU comes into the game with a perfect 4-0 record on the road and will look to extend that streak and its lead over the field in the Big Ten. 

“It’s an exciting time for us, a chance to go on the road,” Izzo said. “It’s a tough stretch with four out of five games on the road but what a great opportunity to go down on the road to Champaign and play another — what we know is —quality team.”

Scouting the Opponent

Illinois enters the game at 13-5 and 6-2 in the Big Ten. The Illini have dropped its last two games to Purdue and Maryland after starting out 6-0 in conference play. 

The biggest factor in the loss against Maryland on Friday was the absence of national Player of the Year candidate Kofi Cockburn and sophomore guard Andre Curbelo’s illness. Cockburn, a junior center, missed the game with a concussion and his status for Tuesday’s game is questionable, Illinois Head Coach Brad Underwood said. Curbelo is expected to play after only playing 14 minutes in the loss. 

“There’s a lot of guessing and that makes it a little bit more difficult to gameplan for,” Izzo said. “But that’s how this whole year’s gonna be.”

The questionable status of Cockburn and the constantly changing rosters have made it difficult to prepare for the challenges Illinois will present for MSU, Izzo said. Cockburn leads the team in points (21.1) and rebounds (11.8) and his absence from the floor will be a major detriment to the Illini’s chances. 

If he is playing, MSU’s big men will have their hands full. His brute size standing at 7’0” and 285 pounds poses a particularly unique challenge for players like senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. and junior center Julius Marble II. 

Izzo compared Cockburn’s absence from the lineup to the Michigan Capitol building being replaced by a 7/11 and said the team will have to play physically and take a page out of Mel Tucker’s playbook in preparation if he does play. 

“This is a real good case of if we can block and tackle,” Izzo said. “We can use football analogies. He’s gotta be blocked, tackled and everything else.”

Izzo added that the other veterans like senior guard Trent Frazier and graduate student guard Alfonso Plummer have gotten them through the rough patches and guided Illinois to yet another strong start in conference play.

Illinois normally employs a four-guard lineup around Cockburn or backup centers junior Omar Payne and sophomore Coleman Hawkins. Frazier, Curbello, Plummer and graduate student guard Jacob Grandison space the floor and use the spacing to create shots from deep and driving lanes.

The most underrated aspect of Illinois is its defense. The Illini are coming into the game only allowing opposing teams to shoot 40.4% from the field and 66.9 points per game. The best part of the defense has been the ability to chase teams off the three-point line. Illinois enters the game only allowing the opposing team to shoot 32.8% from three

Michigan State will need another strong offensive performance similar to the game against Wisconsin if it wants to find more success on the road against the Fighting Illini.

Illinois hosts Michigan State on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. EST. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

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