Illinois coach Bruce Weber realizes how special the Michigan State game is, especially the way his group of undervalued seniors have overcome the odds and transformed a poor team into an outstanding one in the span of one year.
"It should be a big moment for our seniors. We're very proud of what they've done. They can have just a great memory of their last game in the Assembly Hall. I expect the crowd to be very hyped and special and excited. So it should be a great Sunday of basketball."
The win over Minnesota Thursday gave the Illini an 11-5 Big 10 audit. They are two games behind the Spartans in the standings with two games to go. But MSU still has three games remaining, so a win over the Spartans keeps the Illini in the hunt for the championship according to Weber.
"Now, Sunday really means something. As a senior, you can't dream of any better situation. Maybe playing for the Big 10 Championship. You're playing a top 10 team, you're playing on CBS, you can't ask for any more.
"Its important not only for the seniors but the other guys. I always approach it, don't let the seniors go out with a loss at home. Make sure they have a great memory. And then down the road, make sure the next group does. It's a huge game for us, and a lot of things are riding for both of us."
Seniors Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham, Calvin Brock and C.J. Jackson will no doubt be sentimental about their last home game. But as they have done ever since last season's frustrations ended, they are taking one game at a time with an ultimate goal beyond this Sunday.
"I talked to all the players individually this week, the seniors especially," Weber states. "When I brought up the future, to a man they said, 'I don't want to talk about after this year. I just want to think about the next 3-4 weeks. I think they're really focused on having a great finish. Hopefully, their emotions won't overcome them."
Of course, Michigan State won't lay down and let the Illini win. They are absolutely loaded with talent, and Weber says he is hearing talk the Spartans may be Final Four caliber. Star Raymar Morgan is rounding into shape after an illness. And a couple freshmen have shown they are ready to provide quality depth, judging from their last outing.
"Korey Lucious hit 4 of 7 for three, and Delvon Roe was the leading scorer with 16 (6 of 7)," Weber reminds. "So those two in double figures. Besides that, when Morgan went down, the adversity created an opportunity for some other athletes, and (Durrell) Summers definitely took advantage of it. He's had some huge games.
"So now, if you get Morgan back clicking, Tom thought it would take a little while, then you've got Summers playing well and those two freshmen. You've got to feel good about how you're finishing the season and the post season. And they have the go-to guy in (Kalin) Lucas.
Tom Izzo's Spartans have shown no ill effects from playing on the road. Perhaps their physical strength and rebounding prowess translates well regardless of the environment.
"They have played well on the road. I think their only loss was at Purdue last week. I believe they started 6-0. So it's not gonna be easy. They played well at home and on the road. I watched the tape of our first game. Kind of like Minnesota, they took it to us early. They're physical.
"The rebounding is definitely gonna be a factor. Somehow, we're gonna have to change everybody's mindset to get involved in the rebounding part. We're gonna have to play well to beat a very good team.
The Spartans are a high scoring bunch, averaging 72 points per contest. Lucas, Morgan and postman Goran Suton are all averaging double figures, while Summers and Chris Allen are both over 9.0 per game. They have a potent transition offense with speed merchants Lucas and Lucious leading the way. But their defense is excellent as well.
"They're good defensively. They don't do anything spectacular. We call it The Pack. They're always in the gaps. They don't do too much outside the three point line. They're always there, they never give you easy looks. They fight you in the post. You're gonna have to find a way to get some easy looks, get some easy baskets in transition, maybe off of steals. That eases the pressure off your half-court offense."
Weber has problems finding weaknesses, although he hopes pressure defense will help.
"Purdue's pressure bothered them a little bit. They got disrupted and turned it over. We had a similar scenario in our game. We disrupted them. Our problem was getting the rebounds when they did shoot it. I think that's the big key, keep them off the boards."
The MSU game Sunday and the finale at Penn State next week offer special opportunities for the Illini if they can somehow continue to win. And it would be a special reward for seniors who have made a commitment to seeing their Illini careers end on a high note.
"The two games coming up aren't very easy. In the Big 10 Tournament, everyone's gonna be fighting for their lives. And that's why it's so important we find a way to get Sunday. You want to play your best basketball at the end of the season.
"Everyone at the beginning (of the season) was talking about the future and the recruits, and I'm trying to express to them about right now. I think you can be successful. And they bought into that. Slowly but surely, we've nurtured ourselves into a pretty solid basketball team."