College Basketball Preview and Free Pick
The Big 10 matchup between Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans and Brad Underwood’s Illinois Fighting Illini is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. ET at State Farm Center in Champaign.
TV Broadcast: ESPN2
Network Radio: Spartan Sports/WJIM 1240-AM and WMMQ 94.9-FM/Sirius Ch. 134/XM 196
Michigan State Spartans
Izzo’s crew has lost two straight for the first time this season and aim to end the losing streak in a road contest against an Underwood troupe that has actually appeared competitive since the holiday season. The No. 11 Spartans played ugly in their Saturday loss to Indiana. Michigan State dropped the league event by the 79-75 overtime final against an Illini squad that has now won two of their last three, including a 71-64 home win over Nebraska.
The loss to a defenseless Hoosiers roster should be a wakeup call. State is 18-4 overall, 9-2 in the Big Ten and ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press poll heading into tonight’s contest.
Injuries have created a short bench for the Spartans and in turn tired legs. Junior guard Cassius Winston is the engineer of the Izzo offense. The floor general leads the conference in assists (7.3 per game) and ranking fourth in the league in scoring (18.8 points). Despite his experience and near double-double average the excessive minutes in a conference that exudes physicality is beginning to take a toll on the guard.
Both Winston and center Nick Ward have hit that conference schedule wall. Neither of Izzo’s leaders have been consistent the last two weeks and in the two consecutive losses. The Spartans have been out-rebounded in each of the last two games, including a combined 36-23 on the offensive glass.
The overwhelming evidence of the Spartans tired legs have come at the charity stripe where MSU was 8-for-22 in the loss to the Hoosiers. A recent injury to junior wing Kyle Ahrens (back) has seen the veteran swingman miss three of the last six games. His return to active duty saw him register just three points without a rebound in 26 minutes against Indiana.
Illinois Fighting Illini
The Illini are 7-15 overall, 3-8 in the Big Ten and unranked. Underwood’s kids have finally taken to his emphasis of pressure defense and have won three of their last six games — wins over Minnesota, Maryland and, last weekend, Nebraska.
The young Illinois backcourt is finally getting it. The combination of Trent Frazier and freshman Ayo Dosunmu at the guard, as well as freshman power forward and future NBA’er Giorgi Bezhanishvili have began to find their Mojo. Illinois leads the Big Ten in steals and turnovers forced which is the formula for keeping it close against a tired Michigan State squad.
Underwood’s Illini will do what they do best on their home floor and that is control tempo with their pressure defensive. Against Izzo’s troop you can expect the young and fresh legs of Illinois to make the visitors uncomfortable in half court sets while pushing the ball offensively.
The Illini have some momentum and the home town crowd will be in “Orange-out” mode at State Farm Center tonight. Until the Spartans can get back home and record a victory by margin the starters and primary reserves there will be nothing easy for Izzo’s boys on the road in league play.
Winston is averaging 20 points per game but has played a ridiculous 35 minutes per contest in Big Ten games. His load is a heavy one for Izzo as March approaches. Underwood and his players will push the pace in this game and operate a physical pressure defense against the visiting Spartans.
Furthermore the first two rotations for Underwood have turned their pressure defense into offense averaging 74.7 points over the last three contests.
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