Despite Dee Brown's career-high 34 points, Izzo never took the pose he made famous the past two seasons as the Spartans were challenging the Fighting Illini until the final minute of the game. It seemed no one on the Illini was willing to take a shot besides Dee Brown until Rich McBride hit the game sealing three pointer with less than two minutes on the clock. While McBride hit the game sealing shot, Thursday night was a signature performance from the Illini senior point guard.
Dee Brown was named the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year by the media, and in the first Big Ten game of his senior campaign he laid a claim on the award for the postseason as well. Dee Brown was everything for the Fighting Illini against the Spartans. In the post game interview Tom Izzo stated that he felt like he was playing against Vince Young, who led Texas to the BCS Championship on Wednesday night. In the first half Izzo probably was hoping he never saw the #11 orange jersey ever again as Dee almost outscored the Spartans himself.
After numerous questions about his ability to become a full time point guard earlier in the season, Brown has answered all of the critics and thrived in the Illini's last seven games as the team point guard.
Outside of Dee Brown's offense, the name of the game for the Fighting Illini was defense and rebounding. A staple of the Michigan State National Championship and Final Four teams of the early part of this century was their rebounding and toughness, but when they walked into Assembly Hall and met this year's version of the Illini, they were outmatched in both aspects. The Illini kept the Spartans off the offensive glass as no Michigan State player had more than one offensive rebound. The Illini also outrebounded the Spartans 31 to 27.
Defensively, Brian Randle was tasked with shutting down Michigan State's leading scorer Maurice Ager. Randle took the challenge from Illini Head Coach Bruce Weber, and hassled Ager all day. Ager only scored nine points (he averages 22 points on the season) on the contest because Randle shadowed him the entire game and made it difficult for Maurice to get a shot off. The Illini big men also worked together to keep Paul Davis off his season averages, holding him to just 12 points and 9 rebounds.
James Augustine struggled offensively turning the ball over 7 times, but he quietly had a solid game for the Illini. The ball did not find its way into the middle much, and Augustine was never able to get into an offensive rhythm. While his offense was, in a word, struggling, Augustine's defense and tenaciousness on the defensive glass (he had 9 rebounds) set defensive tone for the Illini on the inside. Augustine made it difficult for the Spartans to get the ball inside to Paul Davis, and was great in weak side rotation leading to three blocked shots (a season high).
BRUMBY'S RANDOM THOUGHTS
Jamar Smith, welcome to the Big Ten. The Illini freshman was welcomed to the Big Ten with screams of shooter every time he stepped on the court, and made cuts to get open. Adjusting to the defenses of the Big Ten could turn out to be difficult for the Illini freshman as Michigan State held him to just one shot, and zero points. "The Microwave", as the Fighting Illini media notes have dubbed him did not interject much energy into the game for the Illini when he was inserted as the first guard off the bench.
Food for thought, Michigan State might have the worst defense in the Big Ten (though their defense on Thursday night was much better than it has been earlier this season) from a team not named Purdue or Penn State, and they were able to hound the Illini all game. It just goes to show that the scouting reports are about one hundred times more thorough when you are playing a conference team.
- The Illini offense is called "motion" yet once again there was not much movement for the Illini. Dee Brown's teammates just seemed to stand there and watch him work his magic. This was the problem that plagued the Illini earlier this season, and it reared its ugly head again. If the Illini's offense continues to lack movement, I would not be surprised to see them lose a conference road game that they should not have lost this season as Dee Brown cannot carry the team like this for 16 Big Ten games.
- While Bruce Weber is a big fan of the Illini big men trapping on ball picks, it caused numerous lapses in the Illini defense due to a lack of rotation from the weak side.