Michigan State has plenty of talent, and its coach Tom Izzo has his players competing at a high level again. With GameDay visiting East Lansing Saturday and excitement building throughout the day, the Spartan players and fans will be ready for a peak effort according to Illinois coach Bruce Weber.
"I'm sure with GameDay, we're really gonna have to deal with a highly energized Spartan team up in East Lansing."
The Illini hosted MSU for its own version of GameDay last year and pulled out a win, their crowd practically lifting the roof off the Assembly Hall. The Illini can expect no less from the Izzone student section and the rest of the Spartan crowd as they seek to balance the ledger.
Illini senior center Mike Tisdale knows what to expect playing at the Breslin Center.
"I've always said they've got some of the most creative fans. Not always the cleanest fans, but it's fun to go play at a place like that. You never want to be the first player out on the court at Michigan State.
"Anytime you have GameDay at your place, you get extra psyched up. So it won't be easy. We know they're gonna be excited."
Illini senior Mike Davis says the home team isn't the only one wanting to play well for a national TV audience and GameDay.
"We want to get this game for GameDay. They're gonna want to turn the table from last year. We've got to get this one."
Hype aside, Weber has great respect for Izzo, a long-time close friend. MSU suffered some bad losses but has begun to return to form lately.
"Michigan State has had some struggles, fighting just like us to stay alive not only in the conference middle-of-the-pack race but also for a post-season bid. After having two really tough games at Iowa and at Wisconsin, Tom got them to respond.
"They probably played as well as they have all year against Penn State, took it to them. And then I thought they played with great energy at Ohio State. It's tough to win at Columbus with the team they have."
Weber was asked what the Spartans have done to right the ship.
"I think the one thing they've done is try to slow down. They haven't taken as many quick threes. I think they've tried to pound it inside more. I don't want to say control the tempo because they're still breaking when they get an opportunity. They're also being a little more solid on the defensive end."
Weber says senior point guard Kalin Lucas is beginning to show his special abilities after being slow to recuperate from Achilles tendon surgery.
"Lucas is really playing at a high level right now. He's averaging 18-19 points a game the last 4-5 games. He seems to have some of his quickness back and is doing things like the Kalin Lucas we knew the last couple years."
That is not good news as he can drive past any Illini defender when healthy. He leads a devastating fast break, and he can pull up for jumpers and threes. Another key in the Spartan attack is do-everything Draymond Green.
"They always run stuff through him," Weber reminds. "In our first game, he's the major go-to guy. He was 12 and 6 with 4 assists against us. They use him. He's like a point forward; he's a great passer.
"He's a mismatch. If you put a big guy on him, he will take you outside. If you put a small guy on him he goes inside. He's very active, and he's a very good leader for them also."
Izzo loves tall wide-bodies who can attack the glass and be physical on defense. It appears 280 pound Derrick Nix is beginning to realize his potential. Davis is surprised by Nix's athleticism.
"He's pretty agile to be so big. He'll try to body up Tisdale so he can't get in a good position to get some easy points. We did the high-low very well the other night against Michigan, so I know they're gonna scout that."
Illini senior Bill Cole has also been impressed with the improved play of the Michigan State big people.
"I watched them against Ohio State the other day, and their bigs looked dominant the first 25 minutes of the game. I think Michigan State had every chance to win that game."
Michigan State is taught to attack the glass and dominate physically, so Davis says the Illini must fight fire with fire.
"We've got to take it to them and punch first. If we punch first, we'll be fine. But we can't let them punch first. If we do, they'll smell blood."
Senior Durrell Summers was expected to star for MSU this year, but he has struggled most of the year. When he is on, he can shoot well and jump out of the gym. Summers could be a key to the outcome.
"He's a great player," Davis states. "He can turn it on at any moment. He can shoot threes, he can get to the basket because he's so athletic. I hope he's not really playing too good. If he's on, they're a good team."
Weber has stressed to his players the importance of relaxing and having fun against the Spartans. The Illini play better when they're having fun.
"If you're a player, you've got to play. I hope you have some jitters beforehand; it helps with your preparation. But once the game starts, you've got to let loose on the court.
"I think we'll go to Michigan State and play happy and loose and free and get after them. We've got a great opportunity. The lights are on, it's on national TV, it's the late game. It's an opportunity for our guys to shine."
Illini Nation hopes that is true. But there is a paradoxical aspect to the equation. Illini players have fun when they win, but somehow they need to have fun before they know whether they will win. The former is easier than the latter.
"Everybody's got so much pressure on them now from the couple games we dropped," Tisdale admits. "We think that everybody's against us. We've just go to go out there and play free. If we play hard, everything's gonna fall into place."
For Brandon Paul, the season has included some fun times. He said even the squeaker win with Michigan was fun. Not necessarily during the game, but afterward.
"A lot of it has been fun. We've had some setbacks, but we're still teammates, we're still a family. We had fun in the locker after the last game, celebrating in the locker."
The key is to want to win but play care-free, as if winning isn't that important. The Illini would be much more likely to play better and win if they can somehow outsmart their own minds while they play the game. At least Tisdale and the other players know they are supposed to have fun during the game.
"You can't really relax before the game. But we've got to go up there and have fun. We've got to get back to that. Playing hard, playing for each other. If we do that, it will give us a chance to win."
Sometimes, simply telling yourself to relax tightens you up. It will be interesting to see how the Illini manage the mind games they must master to play their best on a foreign court.
Weber figures if his players pay close attention to detail in pregame preparations, relaxation is more likely. It's like going into a school exam after studying and learning every possible answer ahead of time.
"It's that fine line. We've got to get better at details: screening, cutting, weakside defense, box-out, weakside box-out. To me, that's coaching. The kids have got to accept those things and try to make those corrections. If they can do that, then we can say, 'Relax, have fun, get after it.'
Weber realizes some of his players let their personal frustrations limit their play in games. Slumps, concerns over playing time or future NBA contracts, etc. can all interfere. Weber believes the best way to have fun is to think more unselfishly.
"To me, we had fun at Minnesota. We played our butts off, we helped each other, we cheered, we got after it. That's got to be our focus. If they can focus on that, then they won't focus on their own little problems. They can focus on the big picture and the team. I think that would help them relax."
There has been a lot of discussion about Weber as a coach and the status of his contract with Illinois. He makes a lot of money, and some people presume the more money he makes, the more driven to win he becomes. But he explains his motivations have nothing to do with salary.
"I want to win for Illinois, for the university, for the athletic department, for the fans. We've got such tremendous fans. And for our kids and the staff. They put in a lot of time. That's why I want to have success.
"When you don't win as many games as you hope to, I feel bad for the fans, for the administration and for the university. For me, that's the pressure I feel. I felt the same pressure when I made $4,000 as an assistant.
"You put a lot of time in it, you work so hard at it. You hope you have immediate success with wins from game to game and season to season. The long-term success is kids graduating and becoming good citizens, good family people. And the special cases where guys go on and play professional basketball."
It remains to be seen whether the Illini can rise to the occasion and topple the athletic Spartans on their home turf. But Paul reminds they at least have some extra confidence after finally winning a close game against Michigan.
"It definitely gave us some confidence coming into this game. We lost some games we shouldn't have. We have to play a lot better than we did last game, but if we focus and fight, then I think we will do well."