PREVIEW: Illinois vs. Michigan State

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' Senior Day battle against Michigan State on Wednesday night.

Illinois (17-12, 7-9) vs.

Michigan State (18-11, 10-6)

Date & Time: March 1, 8 p.m. CT

Location: State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)

TV: BTN

Quick Hits

  • Illinois is riding a three-game winning streak after a 73-57 win at Nebraska on Sunday.
  • The Illini haven't won four Big Ten games in a row since 2015.
  • Illinois has held opponents to 57.7 points per game and 36.1 percent shooting during their winning streak.
  • The Illini are 22-22 at home in the Big Ten under John Groce.
  • Illinois is 58-59 all-time against Michigan State, and the Spartans have won the last two.
  • Michigan State is 22-16 against Illinois during Tom Izzo's tenure.
  • The Spartans have won two straight in Champaign.
  • Michigan State is coming off an 84-74 win against Wisconsin on Sunday.
  • Both teams have won four of their last five games.
  • Izzo has a record of 100-43 in the month of March, including conference and postseason tournaments.

Projected Starters

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas posted seven points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals in 31 minutes at Nebraska on Sunday. He averaged 8.8 points and 4.2 assists in February, and has been constantly improving. Lucas makes a big impact at the defensive end, and he has been the primary catalyst for drastic defensive improvement.

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams has played with a lot of confidence recently, and he had his best shooting night since December by hitting four of his five three-point attempts at Nebraska. It took Abrams 12 Big Ten games to hit four threes to start Big Ten play. He also had six assists, four rebounds and two steals on Sunday.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill is 12 points away from passing Brian Cook for fourth on the program's all-time scoring list. He had 19 points, four assists and three steals in 38 minutes on Sunday. He is the only major-conference player to lead his team in total points, rebounds, assists and steals this season. And this will be his final go in Champaign -- outside of an accepted NIT berth.

Leron Black (R-SO): Black had seven points and five rebounds in 22 minutes at Nebraska. He averaged nine points and 6.5 rebounds in the two previous wins. The Illini need him to hit the glass hard against a team that is fifth in the conference in rebounding margin.

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan produced 12 points in 28 minutes on Sunday with 10 of those coming in the first half. The Huskers could not handle Morgan one-on-one, as they brought a post-trap in the second half. Morgan will have his hands full in the paint on Wednesday.

Bench

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands hit three treys off the bench at Nebraska for nine points in 22 minutes. He also posted four rebounds, an assist and a steal. Coleman-Lands has connected on seven of his last 15 attempts from deep.

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke didn't have a good game shooting the rock on Sunday, as he went 0-of-3 from the field and missed one of his two free throws. But he did have two assists and two steals during his 21 minutes. Finke is now second in the Big Ten by shooting 47.6 percent from three in conference play.

Kipper Nichols (R-FR): Nichols has been impressive at the defensive end with four blocks and two steals combined in the previous two games. He is also averaging seven points per game over the last eight contests, and he's shooting 47.8 percent and 52.6 percent in Big Ten play.

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate has not played in the last two games. He played seven minutes at Iowa, but he only recorded two turnovers and two fouls.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan didn't play on Sunday. He played nine minutes in Coleman-Lands' absence against Northwestern last week.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne has not appeared in the last five games. His last outing was against Minnesota on Feb. 4.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams hasn't played since Jan. 21 at Michigan. He was in the game for three minutes. He's sat out 12 of the last 13 games.

Michigan State Starters

Lourawls Nairn Jr. (JR): Nairn is averaging 4.4 points and 3.1 assists per game in Big Ten play. He had four points and two assists on Sunday against Wisconsin. He brings effort, toughness, defense and quickness off the dribble.

Alvin Ellis III (SR): Ellis has taken over the starting role after Eron Harris' season-ending knee injury. He is averaging 8.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game in Big Ten play, while also shooting 41.7 percent from deep. Ellis hit six threes in a win over Ohio State last month.

Josh Langford (FR): Langford had a career-high 17 points last week against Nebraska, and he also added two steals. He has shot 48.8 percent from the field through the last five games. Langford is a smooth-moving athlete who has the ability to score at all three levels. He particularly likes to use his pull-up game off the bounce.

Miles Bridges (FR): One of the most entertaining players to watch in college basketball. One of the best pure talents that Izzo has had at Michigan State. Bridges is a monster with 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. He is shooting 40.8 percent from three. And he loves to play above the rim. He's the type of player you have to keep tabs on at all times.

Nick Ward (FR): Ward is a grown man who just happens to be a freshman. At 6-foot-8, 250 pounds, he is a load in the paint. He can eat you alive in iso situations. He has great feel for positioning on the offensive glass and with spacing on guard penetration. Ward also moves well and can block shots. He had 22 points and nine rebounds on Sunday against Wisconsin.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Lock it down. Illinois is a relevant basketball team at this stage of the season because they defend. It has completely changed the game. The Illini held Northwestern and Nebraska under 60 points in the previous two games. Those aren't high-powered teams, but Illinois suffocated them. Penn State is the only team to score more than 70 points against the Illini through the last 10 games. The Nittany Lions' athleticism was twice proven to be an issue for Illinois. The scary thought in this game is that Michigan State has the athleticism to compare, and even more overall talent to boot. Ward is a problem. Bridges is a problem. But if the Illini can be sound, confident and bring exceptional energy at that end, they are capable of getting stops. Staying out of foul trouble will be important. Nichols might be a good fit on Bridges athletically, but Hill will get a shot as well. And the Illini will need to bring some lane help at the very least when Ward touches the ball. He can't be left on an island. One positive for Illinois is that Michigan State is susceptible to turnovers. The Spartans have averaged more than 14 per game in Big Ten play. If the Illini can prevent easy baskets and make the young guys force the issue, they'll be right where they want to be.

2. Point guard duel. Much of the focus will be on the seniors, but this is very much a young man's game too. Michigan State starts three impact freshmen, and freshman point guard Cassius Winston is an absolute X-factor off the bench. Winston had 10 points, eight assists and seven rebounds on Sunday against Wisconsin. Nairn has gotten the starts, but Winston has become Izzo's finisher with the way he impacts the game. His vision is off the charts, as he leads the nation in assist rate -- according to KenPom. He can hit the three as well. On the other side, it's very evident that Lucas' value is as high as anyone's on the Illini roster with what he brings at both ends. He gives the offensive life with his ability to facilitate and manipulate the opposing defense. And he is without question Illinois' best on-ball defender. This is the first of many matchups between these young point guards. Lucas has to be able to play high volume minutes in this game because his margin above replacement is quite large. The Illini hope that his pressure on the ball can force Winston to make mistakes -- much like he did against Derrick Walton Jr. with six turnovers and only three points at Michigan.

3. Electricity. This is a big-time game. In your arena. In March. With everything to play for. We should see an atmosphere and buzz in the air that hasn't been measured at the State Farm Center in recent years. The Illini ticket office announced on Tuesday that there will be a capacity crowd after the free ticket giveaway to students. In the biggest game for this coach, for these players and for this program in quite some time, there should be nothing held back. We should see a true home court advantage. And we should see a team doing everything they can to seize this opportunity that they've earned with their recent play. This is the type of game you live for.

Prediction

Michigan State is a scary team. Clicking at the right time. As talented as any squad in the Big Ten. And it's March, which is right in Izzo's wheelhouse. That leads to an urge to lean towards Sparty in this game. You could argue that it's the safer pick on paper, although Vegas has the Illini as a 1.5-point favorite as of Tuesday.

You can't help but take notice of the way Illinois is playing right now. They're competing their tails off. They're playing together. They believe in each other. And in a season that knocked them down enough times for it to seem like they were finished and their goal was unreachable, here is one game to make a statement and really play for something the rest of the way. In improbable fashion, why not?

Illinois 69, Michigan State 65


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