The Illini have surged into contention (6-3) in the Big Ten and now feel as if they are ready to stake their claim for the conference lead.
"(Michigan State) is a huge game for us," said Illini head coach Bruce Weber. "People have been talking about us turning the corner, but we have to beat the top teams to say we've done that.
"So we will see how good we are when we've played Michigan State and Wisconsin," Weber added. "I consider Michigan State a Top 20 or Top 25 team," said Weber.
In his first season, the new Illini head coach, replacing the departed Bill Self who left to coach Kansas, has turned around his team which started out the Big Ten with two losses in its first three games.
But Weber put his team in the hands of sophomore guards Daron Williams and Dee Brown. The team responded by winning five of its last six contests. Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo is aware of what Brown can do, he recruited him. But he likes his team's chances after a sizzling 73% shooting performance in a win over Ohio State. "We're coming off our best shooting performance of the season," Izzo said. "But we need to defend better and I think we will really get tested at Illinois. They have as good of a guard tandem as anybody in the league and maybe any team in the country," he said. "We'll have to try and contain them."
The game will be a reunion of sorts for Brown and fellow Proviso East high school graduate Shannon Brown. Brown was recruited heavily by Illinois but instead chose to play for Izzo and the Spartans. "It will feel funny to see him in a Michigan State jersey," said Dee Brown.
The two were extremely close in high school and have kept in touch through their collegiate season. "There are always going to be ups and downs [to the basketball season]. Unfortunately, I'm going through downs while Shannon's going through ups."
Shannon is averaging 8.6 ppg and 3.1 rebounds in a three-guard MSU rotation. Dee is averaging 12.4 ppg and 3.5 rebounds but has struggled with consistency.
Illinois believes the key is disrupting the Spartans rhythm and getting Paul Davis into early foul trouble.
"Without [Davis] they have to work a lot harder," said forward James Augustine, who drew the assignment of trying to stop MSU pivot man. "He's a great player. He does everything for their team. I think he's one of their MVP's right now."
The contest is the featured game on ESPN tonight at 8:00 EST.