Michigan State Basketball: Previewing the Illinois Fighting Illini

Black, Leron
Leron Black and the Illinois Fighting Illini may have lost five straight games overall, but they have only lost to the Spartans three times over the past 10 years. (Source: USA Today Sports)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Through seven games, the race for the Big Ten title is heating up.

At the top, you have the Purdue Boilermakers and the Ohio State Buckeyes, both of whom are 7-0 thus far. The Boilermakers received a first-place vote in the latest AP Top 25 rankings, while the Buckeyes are knocking on the door of the top 10.

In between the two, you have the sixth-ranked Michigan State Spartans, who are 5-2 in conference play and are looking to pick up their second straight win on Monday night when they face the Illinois Fighting Illini on the road. After a tough stretch of three games, the Spartans bounced back last time out for a big win to keep pace in the Big Ten race.

As for Illinois, they are trending in the opposite direction. They have lost five straight games overall, and are dead last in the conference at 0-7. Illinois is the only team in the Big Ten without a conference win, and they would like to change that on Monday night.

Here’s what you need to know in advance of Monday’s showdown between Michigan State and Illinois from Champaign.

Last Time Out

Coming into their contest with the Indiana Hoosiers in their last outing, the Spartans were in need of a big win to get back on track. After moving to the top spot in the rankings two weeks ago, they were just 2-2, and entered Friday night having lost two of their last three contests. Behind five players who scored in double figures, the Spartans cruised to the 85-57 victory.

The win moved Michigan State to 5-2 in Big Ten play, keeping them within two games of the conference-leading Purdue Boilermakers and Ohio State Buckeyes.

Miles Bridges led all scorers with 22 points on the day, going 9-of-13 from the floor and 4-of-6 from three point range. Matt McQuaid came off the bench to score 11 points, while Nick Ward finished with a double-double of 18 points and 13 rebounds.


Playing on the road in Big Ten play hasn’t been too kind to Illinois this season. Five of their first seven games were away from home, and they closed off a two game road swing with a contest against the Wisconsin Badgers in their last outing. The Fighting Illini returned to Champaign, IL on the heels of a 75-50 loss to the Badgers.

The loss was the fifth straight overall for Illinois, sending them to 0-7 in conference play.

Leron Black led Illinois with 16 points, on 7-of-9 shooting from the floor. Black also added three rebounds in the loss. Mark Alstork recorded nine points and 10 rebounds, while freshman Trent Frazier had 11 points and five rebounds to continue his strong debut season.


Previous Meeting

Last season, the Spartans and Fighting Illini met just once, and it was a home game for Illinois. On the first day of March, Michigan State went into Champaign, IL with their sights set on a momentum-building win. In the end, Illinois had other ideas, and they held off the Spartans for the 73-70 victory.

Miles Bridges went for a team-high 21 points to go along with 10 rebounds and three blocks for the Spartans. Alvin Ellis III had 15 points of his own, while Nick Ward chipped in with 11 points in the loss.

For the Fighting Illini, Malcolm Hill scored a game high 22 points to lead the home side to the win. He also added four rebounds, four assists, and three steals for a stat sheet stuffing performance. Leron Black had 15 points and seven rebounds, while Maverick Morgan had 14 points and seven rebounds of his own.


Players to Watch

Michigan State

Miles Bridges

– 16.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.1 bpg; 47.1% FG, 87.8% FT in 19 games.
– Bridges is one of five Spartans who are averaging double digit points per game.
– He went for 22 points last time out vs. Indiana (five games in 2017-18 with 20+ points).

Jaren Jackson Jr.

– 11.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.3 apg, 3.3 bpg; 50.4% FG, 44.6% 3PT
– Jackson Jr. ranks fifth in the country in blocked shots per game as a freshman.
– He has recorded three or more blocks on 13 occasions this season (posted eight blocks on 12/5 at Rutgers.


Illinois

Leron Black

– 14.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.0 apg; 55.1% FG, 81.7% FT in 19 games.
– Redshirt junior averaged 8.1 ppg last season (+6.4 ppg in 2017-18).
– Black has scored in double figures in even of eight games since missing game on 12/13 vs. Longwood.

Mark Alstork

– 6.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.4 apg; 33.6% FG, 78.3% FT in 20 games.
– He is coming off a nine point, 10 rebound performance against Wisconsin last time out.
– Alstork, who was one of the top graduate transfers following the 2016-17 season, is due for a breakout game.


Prediction

No matter how good a Michigan State team is, or how bad Illinois is at any time, the Fighting Illini always give the Spartans everything they have.

With Brad Underwood at the helm, expect more of the same on Monday night despite the recent struggles of Illinois as of late. Having lost seven straight, what better time than now for the Fighting Illini to get back on the right track. They desperately need a conference win, and that could come on Monday night.

However, given the way that the Spartans bounced back on Friday with a big win over Indiana, it’s hard to see Michigan State falling to Illinois on Monday. Even though the game is on the road, the Spartans appear to have found their groove again, and will pick up another win over Illinois to keep pace with the Big Ten leaders.

Michigan State – 80
Illinois – 67

– T. Bennett