Spartan great Jason Richardson paid a visit to the Michigan State basketball team while at Northwestern last week.
Although he didn't address the entire team, the Charlotte Bobcats' forward spoke with several players, including the two veteran guards, Drew Neitzel and Travis Walton.
"JR was great at Northwestern, he kind of evaluated our team, you can tell he watched us and he rattled off games and what our guys should have done," said coach Tom Izzo. "It's just fun to have those guys come back and I think the players really appreciate it."
"I asked him where his suit was, why couldn't he suit up and play for us for a while, but having the guys come back it's always a lot of fun," added Izzo.
Richardson was on the 2000-2001 Spartans, which was the last MSU team to win the Big Ten title. But Richardson's team that year will forever be connected with this year's MSU team, as with their win over Michigan on Sunday, the Spartans tied the school record for best 20-game start at 18-2.
But as the Spartans look to break that record on Wednesday against Illinois, they know that it would be something special to break the record, with the storied basketball program that MSU has.
"We try to set the standard high and all the guys in the past have set really high standards too," said Neitzel. "To have one of the best starts in school history means a lot when you see the banners of the great teams that have played here, so for us to do that, it would be a great honor and something that we can build off."
"Coach Izzo has done a great job of building this program and not only building it up but maintainitng it, people talk about up and down years, last year they said it was a down year, but we went 23-12 and won a game in the NCAA tournament, so a lot of schools would take that any year," Neitzel added.
But standing in their way will be the Fighting Illini, who beat the 2000-2001 Spartans in their 21st game of the season, and will try to beat this year's Spartans in the same fashion.
"It's going to be a tough game and that's where our bigs are going to have to step up," said Walton. "We have to stick together, there are going to be tough moments in that game, they press and play tough with you. It would feel great with that record with the teams that have played here and all the players, so it would be big for us."
After having their highs the past few seasons, making it to the Final Four in 2005 with players like Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head, and James Augustine, the Illini find themselves on a low this year at 10-11 overall and 2-6 in the Big Ten.
But Bruce Webber's team is still tough on defense, and features a force inside, senior Shaun Pruitt.
"Shots will not be plentiful the way they guard, the concern I have for Illinois is that they are not a 2-6 team, they have been in every game, but they have had some injuries," said Izzo.
"Our players have great respect for that program; they know they are going to be guarded like they haven't been guarded before," added Izzo.
"(Trent) Meacham is having a heck of a year for them; he's making a lot of threes, scoring a lot of points. Pruitt is a beast to handle inside; when he is on top of his game he is very effective in there. The x factor will be guys like (Calvin) Brock and (Brian) Randle. Randle can guard anybody, he is a tough matchup for us because he can solely play the four, and he's as athletic as any four man in the country."
After losing their conference opener to Ohio State by 18 points, the Illini's other five conference losses have been by an average of six points a game. They remain a dangerous team despite their poor record.
The big thing for MSU will be that it is a home game, where the Spartans are 12-0 this season and have won 16 straight games.
When the Spartans take the court against on Wednesday, there will even more to play for than just the best start in school history, but the team will be trying to get a win on Izzo's birthday.
"It's coach's birthday so yeah we have to get a win for him," said Kalin Lucas. "We haven't talked about it just yet but yeah we'll have something for him."
Spartans Look To Make History vs Illinois
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