Illinois coach Bruce Weber is good friends with MSU's Tom Izzo, and they talk shop frequently. They know each other well and know how to counter each person's strategies.
But Michigan State has so much talent and depth this year, coaching familiarity may make little difference to the outcome if Illinois doesn't play its best basketball of the season. Weber says the MSU team is much improved from when it was blown out by North Carolina early in the season.
"I think Michigan State kind of regrouped after the North Carolina game. They might be playing as good a basketball as anybody, at least the elite group of 8 or so in the country. They're playing with a great deal of confidence."
Weber says Izzo has finally retooled his unit sufficiently to look and play similarly to some of his great previous teams.
"He's got them playing up and down. The Big 10 gets a knock for not playing up and down, but to me Michigan State has always been one of the best teams in the country as far as fast break. They're back in it now."
Besides MSU's overall talent, they are pounding the boards the way football-minded Izzo demands.
"Their rebounding is like some of Tom's old teams that just dominated the glass. I understand they have rebounded 50% of their misses, which is an amazing stat. And then they're running like some of his older teams. He's got quickness and athleticism.
"It's gonna be a difficult game. We're gonna have to see if we can slow them up, and then we're gonna have to match their depth. Rebounding has been the question mark for us. We're gonna have to see if we can compete with them on the glass."
MSU has size and strength around the basket, but Illinois guard Demetri McCamey says the key to the Spartans rests with their guards. They have a trait that sets them apart.
"Speed. It adds another dimension to the game. Kalin Lucas (6'-0", 180) and Korey Lucious (5'-11", 170) are two short, quick guards that we've got to bend right away so they can't get on the run."
Weber is also concerned about the sophomore Lucas, who's made tremendous progress since last year. Kalin is averaging 13.9 points a game and has dished out 89 assists.
"He's one of those little bugs that just flies down the court. They're pushing it much more than they did in the past. Lucas had some possessions last year where he just blew by us. He's a little like Dee (Brown) from the top of the key to the top of the key. He's as quick as anybody.
"He also uses his quickness in their offense. They actually run some single-singles for him and some things they ran for (Drew) Neitzel and their better shooters in the past. This past stretch, he's really shot the ball well for them."
Center Goran Suton (6'-10", 245) missed several early games with injury. His absence contributed to the UNC loss. But he's healthy now and playing well, averaging 9.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per contest.
"Suton is a key to them," Weber says. "He's a fifth year senior, he's strong, he's physical. He's really improved as a player. He understands the game."
Freshman Delvon Roe (6'-8", 225) is highly rated, but he is still recuperating from serious knee surgery prior to the season. His 5.3 averages for points and boards are on the rise as he regains leg strength. He's a leaper when healthy.
"Tom considers Delvon Roe one of his better players. He's coming back slowly from his surgery. Tom told me he didn't think he would be 100% the whole year. But he's made a lot of progress."
Michigan State's best player is probably Raymar Morgan (6'-8", 225). He leads the team in scoring at 15.2 and is second in rebounding. Having so many other weapons allows Morgan a better chance to shine.
"Morgan is a tough matchup. He gives them an inside look and can also go out on the court. It's tough for anybody to guard him."
The Spartans are loaded with quality depth. They can bring in 10 or more players with little if any loss of talent. Among those who do the most damage off the bench include senior guard Travis Walton (6'-2", 190) and sophomore guards Chris Allen (6'-3", 205) and Durrell Summers (6'-4", 195). Allen averages 10.1 points a game. The big bodies guarding the glass include Marquise Gray (6'-8", 235), freshman Draymond Green (6'-6", 235) and senior center Idong Ibok (6'-11", 260).
Besides everything else, the Breslin Center is one of the toughest venues for opponents. MSU has a long winning streak there, and the strong fan support plays a major role in their success. Calvin Brock describes the student support section.
"It's tough. The student section is out before you get out. They know your whole bio and everything. They're talking trash an hour before the game. It's just a tough environment to play in. We've just got to be ready and focus and do whatever coach says to try and be successful."
Trent Meacham agrees.
"The Breslin Center is very tough. The fans are gonna be there before we get there. When we walk out on the court, they'll be yelling at us, making fun of us. They're creative, but once you get out there playing, it'll be loud but you don't really worry about them too much. It's a fun place to play but a tough place to play."
For the Illini to win, they will have to block out on the boards and find ways of slowing Lucas. They can't afford to give up easy baskets in transition and offensive putbacks. Both have been emphasized heavily in practice this week.
Chester Frazier will have to guard Lucas, and he may not be at full strength. He suffered a sprained foot in the Michigan game and didn't practice Thursday. He will play, but he may need help. Jeffrey Jordan will spell Chester. Demetri McCamey is the third choice, but given his occasional ambivalence on defense, the Illini hope Frazier can stay in the game most of the time.
Meacham summed up the attitude the Illini must take into the game.
"We're gonna have to come with that toughness and a chip on our shoulder because that's how they play. Every man on our team will have to play tough."