Piper's points: Illini take drubbing at MSU

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper gives his takeaways from Illinois' 79-54 loss at Michigan State on Thursday night.

Illini ran through a buzzsaw. The Orange and Blue had a chance to be the first Big Ten opponent to notch three straight wins in East Lansing during Tom Izzo's 21-year tenure. That was until it was determined that Kendrick Nunn, who leads the Illini with 18.5 points per game, would not make the trip so he could be in Champaign for the birth of his son. There's no question that Nunn made the correct decision to cherish that moment of his life. But unfortunately for the Illini, his absence just added to the depletion of the roster - which is already missing three projected starters. Illinois shot a season-low 29.8 percent from the field and made a season-low two three-pointers (2-of-15) on the game. Meanwhile, Michigan State shot 53.2 percent from the field, which was the highest percentage of any Illini opponent. The Spartans also had 50 points in the paint. That is astounding - or deflating - depending on the way you slice it up. Ultimately, Illinois was simply outmatched and outclassed.

Izzo harped on the significance of Denzel Valentine's absence. While Thursday's game didn't show it, Michigan State is missing their stud guard. Valentine is a National Player of the Year candidate, and it's safe to say he is the most versatile player in the country. Izzo took a sizeable portion of his postgame press conference to talk about how much Valentine means to this team. He said that Valentine returned to practice this week and the Spartans just looked like a different unit. Luckily for the Illini, they didn't have to see what that looked like. Valentine wanted to play, but Izzo decided to make an executive decision to hold him out. Even without their best player, Michigan State looked like a Final Four team against the Illini. An MSU media member asked John Groce if he was impressed by the Spartans' ability to play at such a high level without Valentine. He did his due diligence with the question. But missing one guy - even one of the best players in the country - is nothing compared to what Illinois is going through.

Does Malcolm Hill want the leadership role? It was a tough night to wear the orange and blue. The frustration and dejection that was exuded from the Illini bench was understandable. But leaders are held to higher expectations. Groce has placed that leadership role on Hill, who is a natural fit based on his talent and experience. But that isn't the case with his laid-back personality and quiet demeanor. Groce has constantly said that he needs to see more from Hill in terms of being a vocal leader. When the going got tough on Thursday night, he didn't see it. During timeouts, it was Tracy Abrams who spoke up in an attempt at vocal inspiration. Hill was visibly flustered without his scoring sidekick, while also picking up a pair of fouls in the first two and a half minutes of the game. He quietly finished with 10 points and six rebounds. But by the time he scored his second bucket, the Illini were down 25 points in the second half. Hill's production is a separate issue, and it should be only a matter of time until he finds an offensive groove. But you want leaders who can get your team to dig deep through tough stretches. Hill doesn't seem that interested in pulling that out of others.

Khalid Lewis is the answer at point guard. Even in his first game back after recovering from the mumps, Lewis looked far better than Illini starting point guard Jaylon Tate. That is how they left off at the conclusion of nonconference play, and it doesn't appear that much has changed. Tate was solid during Lewis' absence, while playing career-high minutes. But he was not very good against the Spartans. Tate finished with two points (1-of-5), two assists and two turnovers. Meanwhile, Lewis was one of the few Illini bright spots with eight points, four rebounds, two assists and no turnovers. With Lewis on the court, they at least have a point guard who is capable of getting in the lane and finishing. Tate was often seen driving into the lane and stopping with the ball in no-man's land. The difference between starter and bench player was the largest at point guard, and it wasn't close. Illinois was minus-22 with Tate in the game, while they were just minus-1 when Lewis was on the floor.

Michael Finke got beat up. The redshirt freshman learned some painful lessons against the Spartans frontline. Finke got pushed to the limit physically, which showed his need for another offseason in the weight room. He did not help the cause defensively, and giving up 50 points in the paint doesn't look good on any big man. But that's what happened with Finke and Maverick Morgan being Illinois' only options in the post. Michigan State got to flex their muscles with their experience, and overall physicality and athleticism. Senior big man Matt Costello had nine points and 14 rebounds for the Spartans. They had a talented freshman stand out as well in Deyonta Davis, who finished with 10 points, six boards and four blocks. Interior success against the Illini is nothing new, and it's likely going to reach new heights against Purdue on Sunday. On the bright side, Finke had a team-high seven rebounds and his effort never wavered. The hope for Illinois is that he'll be better from these tests in the long run.

Illini fans jealously admire the Spartans. A win for Michigan State gave them a 59-58 lead over the Illini in the all-time series. But the closeness in that battle is hardly representative of where these programs are at on the map right now. The Spartans could be poised for Izzo's eighth trip to the Final Four. Going to the Sweet Sixteen is all but a given, as they've reached that mark in seven of the last eight seasons. Meanwhile, the Illini haven't tasted the Sweet Sixteen in more than a decade. But the ocean-wide difference wasn't always that way. In fact, Illinois had Michigan State's number for a stretch. The Orange and Blue were 7-3 against the Spartans between 2001 and 2006. The two programs tied for the Big Ten regular season championship in 2001. MSU didn't win another one during that time frame, while the Illini won two. If only the good times continued to roll. Michigan State will be one of the most dangerous teams in the country in March. That being said, they may be even more talented next season with a monster recruiting class coming in - headlined by the top two players in Michigan. The Illini are on their way to missing the tournament for the third straight year, and they have yet to capitalize on a loaded in-state group in the 2017 class. Groce and his staff still have time to change that, but they'll need to do it soon to support their case for longevity.


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