Spartans set to tangle with Illinois

In the 95th meeting between the two schools, one will walk out with a one-game edge. The Spartans and the Illini have the two best records in the Big Ten since the 1997-98 season, and have combined to win or share seven Big Titles. The Illini look to sour the Spartans' hopes of another championship.

  (East Lansing) – It's hard to beat a team twice in one season; it's even harder if you have to play against a team that has lost just once in 37 chances at home.

  That's the challenge that lies ahead for the Spartans (14-9 overall, 6-5 Big Ten) as they travel to Champaign, Ill. for tonight's game against No. 20 Illinois (16-5, 6-4).

  The encouraging news for MSU is that they were the last team to pick up a win in Assembly Hall last season.

  The Spartans prevailed 71-67 on Feb. 3, 2002, giving Illini coach Bill Self his first taste of defeat at home.

  In that game, now-departed guard Marcus Taylor scored 12 points in the first half to help the Spartans to a 36-33 lead at the break. Taylor was then knocked out of game with a concussion that left the team without its top player.

  Junior Adam Ballinger stepped up to lead the team with 18 points and freshmen Alan Anderson and Chris Hill added 13 and 11 points respectively.

  MSU head coach Tom Izzo was pleased with his team's performance last season in a tough environment and hopes it will continue this year.

  "We're looking forward to the challenge," Izzo said. "I think our guys are excited about the chance to play in a game that's so meaningful, and in an atmosphere that I think will be a tournament atmosphere.

  "I think Illinois is one of the top-five places to play at."

  The Spartans took on these same Illini a little over two weeks ago and came out with a 68-65 win at the Breslin Center.

  Illinois got out to a hot start and buried the Spartans early earning a 15-2 lead with just six minutes ticked off the clock. The Illini got the lead up to 14, before the Spartans used a 10-2 run to close out the first half trailing 40-34. The run was capped off by a questionable 35-foot heave from Anderson that appeared to be after the buzzer.

  MSU used another big run to open the second half and keep the game close until the final horn.

  Anderson, whose return from a dislocation to his right pinkie finger is still up in the air, had 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field to lead the Spartans. Freshman forward Paul Davis also had 15 points and eight rebounds.

  Izzo said on Monday that Anderson will most likely not see action tonight. He did say he may be used in a defensive situation, but that will be determined at a later time. Anderson practiced Sunday heavily taped, but nobody knows how soon he'll make his return or at what capacity.

  Another reason for the Spartans triumph in the first meeting was that they kept  the potential Big Ten Player of the Year off the floor.

  Illinois's Brian Cook, who leads the Big Ten in scoring at 20.6 points per game, had just 13 points and five rebounds in 22 minutes. Cook picked up his fourth foul with more than 11 minutes remaining and wasn't able to give his team any sort of presence.

  Freshman Dee Brown rallied the Illini scoring 10 points, dishing out 5 assists and picking off three steals to keep the game close.

  However, a three-pointer by Hill with 59 seconds remaining proved to put the game out of reach.

  Izzo said he expects Cook to bounce back and remain the front-runner for Big Ten Player of the Year.

  "I think there's some good candidates out there, but as far as when you see him get 26, 24 points in a half when a team needs I think that's what makes you MVP," Izzo said.

  Izzo said Cook has matured most out of any big men in the Big Ten since he's been around. Cook in the past was a perimeter shooter, but know he's developed an inside game and has gotten physically tougher.

  "I think that's why his game has improved," he said. "He's gone in the post on a more regular basis then he did last year."

  Both teams are similar in several statistical categories, but each one has their own unique style of play.

  Illinois and MSU are tops in the league in holding opponents to low field goal percentages. The Illini are holding teams to 37.3 percent from the field, while the Spartans are holding teams to 40.2 percent.

  Not only can the two teams defend, they can also shoot the rock. Illinois connects on 48.1 percent of its shots to lead the Big Ten. MSU ranks third,

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