PREVIEW: Illinois at Michigan State

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews another tough road test for the Illini at Michigan State on Thursday.

Illinois (8-7, 0-2) at

No. 5 Michigan State (13-1, 1-1)

Date & Time: Jan. 7, 8 p.m CT

Location: Breslin Center (East Lansing, Mich.)


Quick Hits

  • Michigan State enters this game at No. 5 in the AP Top 25 and the USA Today Coaches Poll.
  • The Spartans were No. 1 for four straight weeks prior to their loss at Iowa in the Big Ten opener.
  • Michigan State has been without National Player of the Year candidate Denzel Valentine since he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Dec. 21.
  • The Spartans are one of the best rebounding teams in the country, as they rank first in the Big Ten and No. 3 overall in rebounding margin.
  • Illinois is 58-58 all-time against Michigan State, but the Spartans won the last matchup 60-53 in Champaign on Feb. 22, 2015.
  • The Illini are 20-36 against the Spartans in East Lansing, but they have won two straight there during the previous two seasons.
  • Illinois has not started 0-3 in the Big Ten since 2007-08.

Projected Starters

Jaylon Tate (JR): Tate played a career-high 38 minutes against Ohio State on Sunday - posting four points, five assists and no turnovers. He has had nine assists and just one turnover during Big Ten play. The Illini will gladly take that ratio, but they'll be glad to get get Khalid Lewis (mumps) back to give some balance to the rotation.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (FR): Coleman-Lands was a big contributor in Columbus with 14 points and six rebounds in 29 minutes. He continues to scorch the nets from the outside, as he is shooting 47.2 percent from deep over the last five games. Coleman-Lands is on pace to pass D.J. Richardson for the most three-pointers made as a true freshman in Illini history.

Kendrick Nunn (JR): Nunn has scored in double figures in every game he has played this season. He finished with 14 points and seven rebounds in 37 minutes at Ohio State. Nunn is tied with Valentine for first in the Big Ten in points per game (18.5). With Valentine on the sideline, Nunn needs to look like the best player on the floor.

Malcolm Hill (JR): Hill also produced 14 points and seven rebounds against Ohio State. But his stroke has been off during Big Ten play to this point, as he has shot 7-of-24 (29.2 percent) from the field. That has to change for the Illini to pull the upset. Hill led the way with a game-high 19 points when the Illini won in East Lansing last season.

Michael Finke (R-FR): It was a tale of two halves for Finke on Sunday. He was scoreless with just one rebound at halftime, but he bounced back in the final 20 minutes to finish with 14 points and five boards. Finke is a crucial piece to the Illini offense, which operates at another level when he has it going. The redshirt freshman will have to bring his big-boy pants to the Breslin Center against a tough and physical Spartans frontline.


Maverick Morgan (JR): The Illini know what they're getting with Morgan. He can give you some buckets at an efficient rate, as he is shooting 61.5 percent from the field. But he does not provide much of anything on the glass or defensively. Morgan scored six points in 18 minutes against Ohio State. But he's had just one rebound in 30 minutes during Big Ten play. He's also blocked just two shots on the season.

Aaron Jordan (FR): Jordan hit a three against the Buckeyes on Sunday, but he didn't provide much else during his 12 minutes of action. The Illini need to see better execution from him at the defensive end. They'd also like to see him find more consistency with his stroke. Jordan has shot just 4-of-19 from three over the last nine games.

Alex Austin (R-JR): Austin played 10 minutes in Columbus and he hit a three, which upped his numbers to 19 percent from deep on the season. But that isn't his game, as he is relied on to make plays at the defensive end. Sunday was not his best showing defensively, as he had three fouls. One of those came with less than a minute to play and six seconds left on the shot clock.

D.J. Williams (FR): As he did against Michigan in the Big Ten opener, Williams played just three minutes at Ohio State. The freshman forward added a free throw, which ended a two-game scoreless streak. But Williams has to avoid mistakes to stay on the floor. On Sunday, he fouled a three-point shooter and then turned it over on the next possession. Williams played just 17 seconds in the second half.

Khalid Lewis (GR): Lewis did not make the trip to Columbus on Sunday, as he stayed home to continue his recovery from the mumps. But luckily for the Illini, John Groce said Lewis will go against MSU. When nonconference play concluded, he looked like the best point guard on the roster. In the last three games he played, Lewis totaled 10 points, 18 assists and three turnovers combined.

Cameron Liss (SO): Liss has yet to play this season.

Michigan State Starters

Lourawls Nairn Jr. (SO): They call him "Tum Tum", but not like the one in the "3 Ninjas". This 5-foot-10 point guard is extremely quick and he loves to push the ball in the open court. Nairn is a good facilitator with 4.5 assists per game, but he doesn't shoot it well. He is averaging 4.1 points per game, while shooting 37.9 percent from the field and 21.4 percent from three.

Bryn Forbes (SR): Forbes can be extremely dangerous from the outside when he gets going. He is shooting 47.2 percent from deep on the season, and he is tied for second in the Big Ten for most threes made. Forbes totaled 20 points, six rebounds and three assists in the Spartans' last game against Minnesota.

Eron Harris (R-JR): Harris took his game up another level after Valentine went down. His ability to score was never in question after averaging 17.2 points per game as a sophomore at West Virginia. However, Harris had just four games in double figures prior to Valentine's injury. Now, he is back to filling it up. Harris has averaged 19.3 points over the last three games, including a 21-point outing against Iowa in the Big Ten opener.

Gavin Schilling (JR): Schilling missed the first 11 games due to a turf toe injury. But the 6-foot-9 big man is back in action. Schilling is coming off his best showing of the season against Minnesota by posting eight points and five rebounds. He will challenge the Illini on the interior with his motor and athleticism.

Matt Costello (SR): Costello is the next test on the checklist for Finke. The 6-foot-9 senior is averaging 17 points and 11 rebounds per game in Big Ten play so far this season. He had a big-time outing against Minnesota with 17 points and 15 boards. Rebounding and interior defense have been big concerns for the Orange and Blue - giving Costello a quite favorable matchup.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Take and make the three. The Illini haven't been bashful with their attempts from long range, as they have averaged more than 27 three-point attempts over the last six games. They took a season-high 32 shots from beyond the arc against Ohio State - converting on 12 of them. Being too reliant on the outside shot can be dangerous, but it can also be an equalizer. Illinois will be outmatched in the paint, and the Spartans also have shot blockers at their disposal. The Illini can't force the issue, but their best hope will be to get those threes to fall. Coleman-Lands has been hot from deep, while Finke, Nunn and Hill are all capable of doing the same.

2. Win the turnover battle. Illinois is still flawed defensively, but they have been successful recently in forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. The Illini have forced more than 14 turnovers in each of their last three games. That is a product of pressuring the ball and cutting off driving lanes. Michigan State will be without Valentine, who typically has the ball in his hands as much as anyone. He is top-three in the conference in usage rate. The Spartans have been susceptible to giveaways in his absence - averaging 14 per game during the last three contests. The Illini need to be sound defensively and build off a step in the right direction against Ohio State. Defense was the key during Illinois' last two wins in East Lansing, as they limited the Spartans to just 50 points per game between the two.

3. Replicate the energy and toughness from OSU. The Illini didn't leave Columbus with a victory, but they played with the necessary amount of energy and toughness to compete in a Big Ten battle. Sustaining that for 40 minutes was a big reason why they were just a play or two away from an upset on the road. The Orange and Blue will have to be just as good in those categories to make it a game against the Spartans. Michigan State plays a physical brand of basketball, and they will try to come out and punch you in the mouth. The Illini have to absorb those punches and throw a few of their own. As Groce has noted, the key to this season is controlling the controllables. Illinois can't control the athletic mismatches on the interior, but they can control their ability to make effort plays and battle with grit from start to finish.


Michigan State is not the same team without Valentine. They fell by double digits at Iowa, and then kept things close at Minnesota before ultimately pulling away. That at least gives the Illini a puncher's chance. Illinois should come into this one with confidence based on their last two trips to the Breslin Center. A win for the Illini would give them a three-game winning streak at MSU, which a Big Ten team has not accomplished against Tom Izzo. That probably won't change.

Michigan State 73, Illinois 68

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