Illinois will test improving Spartans

The MSU Spartans and the Illinois Fighting Illini has developed into quite a rivalry over the last few years, but it's been that way since the two started competing against each other in the Big Ten. MSU and Illinois will battle on Sunday.

(East Lansing) – The MSU Spartans and the Illinois Fighting Illini has developed into quite a rivalry over the last few years, but it’s been that way since the two started competing against each other in the Big Ten.

This is the 94th meeting between the two schools and surprisingly Illinois holds just a one-game advantage in the series, 47-46.

Based on that statistic alone Sunday’s matchup between MSU (11-8 overall, 3-4 Big Ten) and Illinois (15-3, 5-2) at the Breslin Center it only makes sense that it should be an even contest.

MSU is coming off a big 61-54 victory over the Indiana Hoosiers on Tuesday night, which extended the Spartans' home record to 9-1 on the season. Illinois is coming off a 67-60 win over Michigan on Wednesday, which snapped the Wolverines 13-game win streak.

The Spartans have played better basketball over the last three games. MSU has lowered its turnovers per game to under 15 per game and have upped its defensive intensity.

Illinois head coach Bill Self said he knows that his team will have to bring its best game if it plans on escaping East Lansing with a win.

"They’re still a very young team and they’ve played a monster of schedule," Self said. "As far as I’m concerned, and I think other coaches feel the same way, they are still the standard in our league."

Self’s team will also be invading the loudest Big Ten environment, which doesn’t bode well for the Illini, who have struggled in games on the road. All three of their losses have been on the road, losing at Iowa and at Indiana.

The Illini, like the Spartans, are a very young team. In fact there are three freshmen in Illinois’ starting lineup.

Six-foot point guard Dee Brown averages 12.1 points per game and is leading the Big Ten in assists, averaging 5 per game. Forward James Augustine and guard Deron Williams have also made solid contributions for the Illini, but the team’s biggest threat is 6-foot-10 senior forward Brian Cook.

Cook came into the season as the preseason pick to be Big Ten Player of the Year and he hasn’t disappointed. Cook leads the Big Ten in scoring with 21.1 ppg and is coming off a 30-point effort against Michigan. Cook scored 26 points, one less than the entire Michigan team, in the second half to lead the Illinois to the come-from-behind win.

The key reserve for Illinois has to be 6-foot-3 guard Sean Harrington. The senior is averaging 8.5 ppg and is shooting a blistering 45.7 percent from behind the arc.

As a team, Illinois leads the Big Ten, and ranks third nationally, in assists per game with 18.56 a game. Not only can they move the ball, they also play some stingy defense. Illinois is holding opponents to just 37 percent shooting from the field and 27 percent shooting from three-point territory.

MSU will look to attack the glass and get second-chance points to stay with Illinois. MSU is outrebounding its opponents by 6.6 rebounds per game.

The Spartans are led by sophomore guard Chris Hill, who is averaging 14.9 ppg. Hill has enjoyed recent success coming off the bench in the last three games.

In addition to Hill, senior forward Al Anagonye has picked up his game offensively and defensively. The 6-foot-8 forward held LaVell Blanchard to just 2 points a week ago. Anagonye is averaging 8.2 ppg and leads the team with 6.2 rebounds per game.

The key reserve for MSU might be senior forward Adam Ballinger. The senior hit the big three-point shot against Indiana to seal the victory, but has been buried in a season-long slump. The Spartans are hopeful the shot will help catapult him back into last season’s form where he earned 3rd team All-Big Ten honors.

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