Illinois @ Michigan State: A Preview

Tuesday night in East Lansing, Illinois will take on Michigan State for the only time this season. The Illini will once again be in front of a national TV audience on a Tuesday night in one of the most hostile environments in the country, the Breslin Center. This is the second time in two weeks that the best of the Big Ten can showcase what Big Ten Basketball is all about to the rest of the world. So let's look deeper into how the Illini and the Spartans match up against each other.

There is no question that Illinois and Michigan State have been the two premier teams in the Big Ten Conference since 1997. Their games against each other in the last seven years have been games that fans across the country have watched because of their impact, not just on the Big Ten standings, but on the national polls and NCAA seeding. The development of a rivalry started in the winter of 1998 when a Michigan State team came into Assembly Hall and had to warm up with the Orange Krush surrounding the court. From that point on, Illinois and Michigan State have been locked in some epic battles for Big Ten supremacy, be it during the regular season or the Big Ten Tournament.

It was Michigan State who ended the 3-13 Illini's run to the Big Ten Tournament Championship in 1999. It was Michigan State who tied Illinois for the conference crown at 13-3 just two years later. It was Michigan State who ended Illinois' long home winning streak in 2002. It was in East Lansing where Frank Williams showed as much emotion as ever in leading Illinois to a win en route to the Illini's second straight Big Ten Championship. Michigan State was Illinois' opponent in the inaugural Paint the Hall Orange Game. Michigan State was Illinois' opponent in last season's Paint the Hall Orange night when Bruce Weber's Illini started their run at Illinois' first outright Big Ten Championship since 1952.

To say that Illinois and Michigan State have played some important games in the last seven years may be an understatement. What comes tonight for the Illini and the Spartans is just another game in the series for the two teams, but with Illinois being 21-0 and Number One, it just holds more of an aura. Stories from Michigan are stating that this is the toughest ticket to get a hold of in the history of the Breslin Center.

COACH SPEAK FROM WEBER AND IZZO
Sure college head coaches will throw out comments to the press before a big game talking about the other team and tossing superlatives their way. Tom Izzo and Bruce Weber are no different, but each coach has made a few interesting comments in the last two days regarding this game.

So what has Tom Izzo said that is crazy and that goes against the traditional wisdom of most Illini fans? Simply that he and his Spartans plan to "run with the Illini" on Tuesday night. Of hand, one would probably think that this is a crazy proposition. Illinois is at its best in the open court, and providing the Illini guards the ability to run up and down the court will just spark the Illini offense. Why would Michigan State decide to run with the Illini?

Simple. It is what Michigan State does. Michigan State averages just over 67 possessions per game, compared to Illinois' averaging just under 67 possessions per game. So if Michigan State is to play its game and Illinois is to play its game, the pace seems to be about right where both teams prefer to play it. Maybe Tom Izzo is not as crazy as your pre-conceived notions would have yourself believe for saying his Spartans would run with the Illini.

Now, the question is why would Tom Izzo want to run with Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and Luther Head on the court? Simple, the strength of Michigan State is not the same as most fans remember when they think of the Spartans. Andre Hutson, AJ Granger, Aloysius Anagonye, and Adam Ballinger are not on the roster. The cabal of big men is replaced by Tom Izzo's never ending string of wing guards on this current Michigan State roster: Shannon Brown, Chris Hill, Maurice Ager, Kelbin Torbert, Drew Neitzel, and Alan Anderson. Simply put, this is not the football pad wearing Michigan State Spartans, and in fact it hasn't been for two years. This is why Michigan State wants to run, it is their strength.

So what happens when the Spartans run with the opponent?

They get more possessions on offense, which leads them to more offensive possessions. According to Ken Pomeroy, the two best offensive teams in the country are Illinois (1) and Michigan State (2). The more possessions played, the more the Spartans are playing offense, their strength. Sure, playing to the Spartans strength, also leads to Illinois playing to their own strength this season, the Illini offense.

Is it a smart decision to try and run with the Illini when you do not have an experienced and true point guard on your roster? Probably not, but it has not really affected the Spartans that much this season, anyways. Sure the Spartans turn the ball over about once every five possessions (The Spartans have turned the ball over on 21% of their possessions this season), while Illinois only turns the ball over once every six possessions (16.6%). Defensively, Michigan State has caused their opponents to turn the ball over once every four possessions (25.7% of defensive possessions have led to turnovers), and Illinois has forced their opponents to turn the ball over once every four possessions as well (23.4%).

In a game of 67 possessions per team (the average game for both Illinois and Michigan State), the Spartans would turn the ball over on 14 of their possessions, while the Illini would only cough the ball up 11 times. The question as to who wins will all depend on which team gets the better shots, and which defense can force its opposition out of its comfort zone.

No one has really been able to do that to the Illini all season besides Iowa who used intense pressure on the Illini guards, and some basic inside presence (Erek Hansen) to slow down the Illini offense. The Spartans have the exact same type of team that Iowa does and they could use this game plan to give the Illini fits on the perimeter and on the inside. The Spartans are just the type of team that can give Illinois fits. They can match up with them on the perimeter, and they have a solid inside presence. Now the question is, can the Spartans play the mistake free game needed to knock off the Illini?

So what has Bruce Weber said this week that was crazy? Well, at least to me his announcing that Roger Powell, Jr. would be guarding Michigan State Center Paul Davis on Boers & Bernstein Monday morning was a puzzling comment to say the least. I know Powell has been the one tasked with slowing down many other big men from opposing teams including Wisconsin's Mike Wilkinson and Gonzaga's Ronnie Turiaf, but the match ups in this situation just do not favor Roger guarding Davis.

Why don't the match ups favor Illinois? If Powell is guarding Davis, that leaves James Augustine to guard Michigan State's Alan Anderson. Yes, that is right; the 6'6 wing forward will be guarded by James Augustine, at least according to pre-game comments from Weber on the radio. While having Powell on Davis is not a bad move, because it just means Illinois will be double teaming with Augustine the second Davis touches the ball, having Augustine chase Anderson around the perimeter is just a foul waiting to happen.

Anderson does it all for Michigan State, and is probably the most overlooked players on the Spartan roster. He will play point guard. He will post up a smaller player. He will take the outside shot. He will find the open man. He is ignored when it comes to recognition as that all goes to other players, but he is the glue that holds the Spartans together. If he sees himself lined up against James Augustine in a one-on-one situation, he would be like a kid in a candy store.

The thing about the Illini defense is simple, they will be trapping the ball all over the place trying to create havoc for the Spartans on the offensive end of the ball, forcing the Spartans to turn the ball over. An adjustment will eventually be made by Weber, as there is really no one on Illinois' front line that can stay with Anderson outside of Powell (now that Randle has decided to red shirt), so eventually the match up on the defensive end of the court for the Illini will have to change.

Two interesting strategies have been discussed by each coach in the press. Is it bravado from Tom Izzo and Bruce Weber? Or do these coaches just know what needs to be done to bring home the "W" in East Lansing on Tuesday night?

PREDICTION
I have told myself that I would never pick against Illinois this season after they defeated Wisconsin in Madison. I thought Illinois would lose one of the two games on the road against either Wisconsin or Michigan State. Combine these two facts, and I do not know how I should pick. My heart says Illinois stays undefeated, but my mind is running in circles.

What I do know is that Michigan State will need a perfect game to break the Illini's 21-game winning streak, even in East Lansing. Are the Spartans capable of it? Definitely. Are they motivated? Definitely. This group of Michigan State seniors has been lambasted in the Detroit press for not being able to win the big one, and they are out to prove something.

Combine everything together, even with my stance that I would not pick against Illinois again, and I have to pick the Spartans to end the Illini's unbeaten streak.

Michigan State: 76
Illinois: 73

RANDOM GAME NOTE
Last Tuesday's Illinois @ Wisconsin game was one of the highest rated college basketball telecasts in the history of ESPN. Tonight's game between Illinois and Michigan State may even top that ranking despite its 6:00 central start.


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