Michigan State seems to be loaded every season. Coach Tom Izzo has a habit of putting his teams in the Final Four, and athletes are eager to play for him. This year is no exception. Their athleticism is breath-taking. Only inconsistency and an extremly difficult schedule have kept them from being totally dominant. Their three losses have been to Florida, North Carolina and Texas.
Junior guard Kalin Lucas (6'-0", 190) leads the Spartans in scoring with an average of 15.5 points a game, and he is second in assists with 3.94 a game. Illinois guard Demetri McCamey has tremendous respect for Lucas.
"He reminds me so much of Dee (Brown) in terms of his speed. He's like a one-man fast break. Whether he scores or misses, he's pushing it regardless. And he's gonna get to the lane and penetrate."
The second leading MSU scorer comes off the bench. Sophomore Draymond Green (6'-6", 235) is a nimble-footed, physically imposing athlete with the best combination of statistics on the team.
He averages 11.1 points while shooting .621 from the field. He pulls down 7.8 rebounds, dishes out over 3 assists, has 15 blocks and 27 steals in less than 25 minutes a game. At the end of the year, he may be in a unique position to win Big 10 6th Man Of The Year while also being named Spartan MVP.
Junior guard Chris Allen (6'-3", 205), senior forward Raymar Morgan (6'-8", 230) and junior guard Durrell Summers (6'-4", 205) all average over 10 points a game. Morgan is shooting .521 from the field and also pulls down over 5 boards per game. Summers is perhaps the Spartans' best overall athlete and is rounding back into top form after a brief lull.
The Spartans are deep. Delvon Roe, a 6'-8", 230 pound sophomore, is a mobile jumping jack averaging 7.1 points a game on .595 shooting from the field. He is second on the team in rebounding. Speedy sophomore guard Korie Lucious (5'-11", 170) leads the team with four assists a game while playing only half of each outing. Freshmen Derrick Nix (6'-8", 230) and Garrick Sherman (6'-10", 235) follow a long line of bangers recruited by Izzo. And there are others who can help.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber has tremendous respect for Michigan State and his friend Izzo.
"I think they went through some of the growing pains that we have gone through. When you lose your leaders, your toughness in (Travis) Walton and (Goran) Suton, (Marquese) Gray and (Idong) Ibok, you lost 19 years of experience. Yes, they have talented guys like we have talented players. But talent isn't everything.
"I think Green has been to the key to them making some strides because he gives them some of the stuff that Suton and some of those guys gave. He just plays so hard. He does all the little things and plays with great emotion.
"So I think they're starting to piece some things together. Tom has tried to get Lucas to become the leader and take over the roles that Walton and Suton did last year. If they can slowly but surely get some of those things together, I think they have some pretty talented guys and can make another run. He has great success getting them to play well at the end."
Weber sees similarities between Lucas and McCamey in terms of their changing roles this season.
"Yes, it's very similar. The kids get a lot of hype, the expectations get higher and all of a sudden their role changes. He doesn't have Walton making sure everything's done right. So now Tom's trying to get that stuff out of him. I think he has gone through some of the same situation as us."
Freshman D.J. Richardson studied Penn State's Talor Battle and held him down last game for the Illini. Weber says he will get first crack at Lucas.
"I don't think we have a choice. He's gonna have to defend him. We've got to get him in transition, slow him down. We're not gonna be able to stop him completely, but if we can limit his easy baskets and slow down their transition, that would hopefully give us a chance. You've got to box out at the end to really give yourself a chance."
Michigan State is fast, and their fast break can be devastating. The Illini must be prepared to defend it.
"They still push the basketball. When they get running, they're at their best. You get Lucas on the break, and you get Morgan and Summers running and Allen trailing on the wing shooting threes. You've got some pretty effective guys coming. And Green and Roe following up with a tip dunk. That's the thing I would look at and worry about."
Weber also worries about rebounding and defense. MSU teams under Izzo are always physical and are trained to attack the glass. They are much stronger physically than the Illini, and they love contact.
"Rebounding has hurt us off and on all year. In the league they're +10, 39-29. That's a big factor that we have to worry about. They really hit the boards, especially the offensive boards. It's been one of their emphases.
"They have shut down people. If you look at their scores in the league, they held Wisconsin to 47, Iowa 53, Minnesota 53. So now we've got to go to their place and score against a team that has some good quickness and defends. We're gonna have to run our offense and execute our screening and cutting. And if you want to win, you're gonna have to shoot the ball well."
To a man, Illini upperclassmen also talk about the difficulty playing in the Breslin Center.
"Yeah, the fans are right on you," Mike Davis remembers. "The Izzone talks so much trash the whole game, your whole family and everything about you. They try to get the hot button on you and take you out of the game."
"It's real tough. The fans are crazy, probably one of the best in the country as far as getting into players' heads and making you do crazy things. They take out facebook pages and things. They're gonna find the most embarrassing moments and make sure you know about it during the game."
Bill Cole speaks along similar lines.
"Those fans up there are crazy. They're loud, and they're yelling things the whole game. They hand out sheets of tidbits about our whole team. It's kind of funny to hear some of the stuff. But you can't pay attention to them. You've got to be mentally prepared as well as physically prepared against MSU."
Illinois needs more balance in scoring output than it got the last couple games. Davis especially has been working to overcome a confidence drain that has limited his offense.
"This is the first time going through some adversity at this university. I've never been in a slump. I've tackled it pretty well. I was in the gym with Coach, and I've been watching film of some good games I played last year. I had to cut hard, get open, screen and get open shots. Things I can do better that I'm not doing now.
"I know I have to score more. Demetri and Tis (Mike Tisdale) can't carry the whole load. I'm a scorer. My shot's not falling right now. All that means is I need to get in the gym more. On film, I'm fading away on my shot. It's not a straight-up shot, so I've got to fix that. When I don't fade away, I make the shot."
Theoretically, the Illini have nothing to lose as they are expected to get beat. Some have postulated the Illini might play better if they relax and don't worry so much about winning. Weber isn't sure that is the best approach with this team.
"I think that's how we always are. I don't think I have to tell them to be loose and casual because that's just how our guys are. I can fight it and fight it. I think it's just a laid-back group. But at the same time, the preparation and some of that stuff could make a difference, even if we are a little laid-back."
Against the physicality of Michigan State, the slender Illini need to man-up. The Spartans play tough, and they intimidate anyone who does give back as much as they get. Weber wonders if the Illini have what it takes to match MSU's effort.
"Whether we have the toughness, the emotion, the guts to do it on a consistent basis, that's what we're gonna find out as we get into the heart of the Big 10 season."
At least, the Illini are accustomed to being behind in games and have the confidence they can rebound.
"You win some games, get some confidence, it's better than losing them," Weber agrees. "I think it can be a benefit to us. They were all hard-fought, close games. We've been behind, we've been in all those situations. Hopefully, it will help prepare us for some close games as we move into the heart of the Big 10 season."
The Illini have had a frustrating habit of winning four games and then losing two. They followed that pattern twice in the nonconference season. They have now won four Big 10 games in a row with the top two teams on the horizon. Can they overcome their pattern against a top foe on its home court?
"We put ourselves in a bind, and now we have to make up for some early losses," Weber admits. "It's not do or die, but it's important. And even more importantly to keep us up in the Big 10 race, stay on top. I don't know how many games you're gonna win at Michigan State."