Michigan State 79, Illinois 54
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Illinois leading scorer Kendrick Nunn didn't travel to Michigan State. WIthout him, his team might've been better of staying home too.
With Nunn in Champaign to witness the birth of his first child -- baby boy Kason Lee arrived at about the 8 p.m. CT tipoff -- the No. 5 Spartans (15-1, 2-1 Big Ten) dominated Illinois (8-8, 0-3) in every possible way in a 79-54 win, matching the largest margin of defeat for the Illini under John Groce (at Wisconsin, 2014)
The Illini shot a season-low 29.8 percent from the field, made a season-low two three point field goal on 15 attempts (their previous season low was four made threes) and allowed a season-high 53.2 opponent field goal percentage.
Maverick Morgan led the Illini with a career-high 15 points. Malcolm Hill added 10 points, and Khalid Lewis tied a season high with eight points.
Michigan State also was without its leading scorer -- senior guard Denzel Valentine, who missed his fourth straight game with a knee injury -- but the Spartans had no trouble with the short-handed Illini. The Spartans scored 50 points in the paint (to Illinois' 20), outrebounded Illinois 46-27 and had 26 assists on 33 made field goals.
Bryn Forbes led the Spartans with 17 points and five others scored more than eight points: Eron Harris (13), Matt McQuaid (10), Deyonta Davis (10), Matt Costello (9) and Gavin Schilling (8).
Illinois hung with the Spartans for the first nine minutes when it was 21-15. But Michigan State went on a 22-3 run en route to a 47-22 halftime lead. The Illini led for only 22 seconds.
What it means
Not much, Illinois hopes. The Illini had jsut 10 players dressed on Saturday -- including two walk-ons -- and only one was projected to be a starter this summer (Hill). Four players, including three likely starters (Mike Thorne Jr., Leron Black and Tracy Abrams), were wearing street clothes, while their leading scorer was back in Champaign. Illinois coach John Groce was fighting a boxing match with two hands behind his back. Thursday's game told us nothing about his team nor his coaching. Nunn's absence took away any chance the Illini had at an upset and guaranteed an 0-3 hole to start Big Ten play. If the Illini are to revive their season, they need to start soon -- with Purdue up next, that will be tough -- but do they have enough pieces? The bigger question is whether Groce's team can fight through this or if it beats them down with plenty of season left to play, a la Bruce Weber's final season (2011-12).
What went right
Lewis returned from the mumps and provided a nice spark for the Illini off the bench. Morgan gave Illinois some offense (mostly at the free throw line). And, hey, llinois suffered no additional injuries. So there's that.
What went wrong
Without Nunn's 18.5 points per game, the Illini offense screeched to a standstill. The Illini tried to play through post feeds to hill and Morgan or using Hill off ballscreens from Finke and Morgan. But Michigan State's elite, physical defense easily defended that. Illinois' ball reversals weren't nearly as dangerous when the ball was going to Lewis and point guard Jaylon Tate, both weak shooters. Hill wasn't very assertive, picking up two quick fouls to start the game. The Illini defense couldn't do anything to slow the Spartans. The 2-3 zone was diced by Michigan State's beautiful ball movement. The Illini man-to-man was just overpowered, and Illinois couldn't compete on the boards. Their transition defense was atrocious. Simply, Illinois was outmatched.
Star of the game
Bryn Forbes: With Valentine, he MSU senior looks comfortable as a go-to guy and more than just a sharpshooter. That should make the Spartans better in March. They seemingly always are.
Illinois returns home -- rejoining Nunn -- and hosts No. 20 Purdue for a 5 p.m. tipoff Sunday. The Boilermakers look like one of the worst matchups of the season for the Illini. The Boilermakers (14-2, 2-1) have one of the best post rotations in the country (A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan) and have the best defensive efficiency in the country. Their wings, led by Raphael Davis and Vince Edwards, are physical and tough. The Illini (8-8, 0-3 Big Ten) will need their best performance of the season to avoid falling under-.500.