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Game Preview: The Struggling Illinois Fighting Illini Visit No. 13 Michigan State

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Rough times have hit Champaign once again as the Illinois Fighting Illini have dropped four out of their last five games heading into a major opportunity against the 13th ranked Michigan State Spartans.

Meanwhile, Sparty is hitting their usual mid season stride as their highly touted big men Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne finally seem like they are “getting it.” Their efforts in the Indiana Hoosiers game were outstanding and may have been enough had Keith Appling not fouled out with over five minutes remaining. The way they played off one another was just beautiful to watch. This will obviously be a huge plus come “March Madness.”

This isn’t a must win for the Illini, however a two and six conference record would be a major hurdle to mentally overcome. It’s crazy to even think about it, with great wins against the Butler Bulldogs, Gonzaga Bulldogs and Ohio State Buckeyes, but you can’t just bottom out and expect to make the tourney. See the Illini’s 2012 season for example. Let’s break down the 2013 game, shall we?

ILLINOIS:

I really don’t like this match up since it looks like it will exploit the Illini’s two biggest weaknesses: half court offense and rebounding. Michigan State can hammer you on the glass and defensively their guards will get up in your jersey. I don’t think though you can back down from that challenge.

Illinois is shooting way too many threes to expect long term success but that’s even highlighted on the road. That number shouldn’t really be higher than twenty in this one.

It’s imperative that Brandon Paul shows the willingness to get to the rim. He was phenomenal in the Gonzaga game. Why? He put the ball on the floor and got to the free throw line. However, Paul is going to need some help.

That’s where Tracy Abrams is going to have to come in. He’s got a great first step and can break down a half court defense. That should give good looks to DJ Richardson and Tyler Griffey. Both haven’t taken the proverbial “next steps” this year but they’ll need to play big from three for the Illini to have even a shot.

Defensively, I’d play quite a bit of zone. We know the Illini aren’t going to rebound the basketball well so just concede that. Don’t let Michigan State get easy buckets like the Michigan Wolverines did on Sunday. Force them to make the three which has been relatively inconsistent this year. Assuming they continue to be average from deep, that should even allow you to get into the open court from transition buckets which are key for the offense to click on all cylinders.

MICHIGAN STATE:

The big men are always hungry. So what do I say to them? EAT, EAT, EAT!

I’d throw the ball down low, early and often, to Nix and let him take on the lean Nnanna Egwu one on one. He should be able to get the Illini into foul trouble relatively easily and if they bring a double team he can kick it out to a shooter or Payne to drive to the rim. There’s no way on earth Griffey is going to be able to stop Payne’s dribble drive game.

Defensively, you go over every screen. Every single time. The Illini have shown an unwillingness this season to get to the rim and will probably take a tough mid-range jumper. You can live with that. Just don’t let them heat up from deep.

PREDICTION:

The Illini realize they need a win of any kind to get back on track. However, another marquee win would all but assure them of an NCAA berth assuming they took care of business against the Big Ten‘s bottom feeders later this season. Problem is this is a bad, bad match up. That’s why Michigan State will win this one relatively easily. Spartans 61 – Illinois 52.

Like my article? Hate it? Let me know on Twitter (@tmichaelcronin). I look forward to your thoughts.