9:00 Thursday. Assembly Hall. ESPN2.
The last time these two teams met, it was an epic battle of two teams determined not to score. Illinois cheated by missing 12 of 19 free throws, and MSU ended up outscoring the Illini 51-41.
Life hasn’t gotten much better for Illinois since that game. They’ve lost 5 of their 7 games since then and now stand at just 4-12 in the conference. They are coming off a 58-47 win over Iowa on the road.
Here’s what I said about the Illini when the conference season began:
Illinois and Ohio State have very similar profiles: They rank in the top 15 nationally on the defensive end and around 100th on the offensive end. Weber and Matta have both lost major league talent (Weber over the last two years combined; Matta all in one fell sweep), but they’ve obviously been able to teach the new guys how to play defense. I like Ohio State’s chances a little better than Illinois’ to become a top-notch contender by the end of the regular season. The Buckeyes are relying mainly on freshman and sophomores, while Illinois’ starters are juniors and seniors left over from the 2005/2006 teams. Ohio State’s players, therefore, have more room to improve on the offensive end as they gain experience. Both teams are good bets to make the Big Dance given their defensive aptitude and national reputations from the success they’ve had the last several seasons.
I’ll chalk the part about Illinois not having much room to improve on offense as a minor win and the part about them being a good bet to make the NCAA Tournament as a major loss.
Illinois now stands at just 190th in the nation in raw offensive efficiency at 100.8 points per 100 possessions. Accounting for the quality of their schedule (2nd toughest in the nation according to kenpom), though, they still rank about where they did when the conference season began in adjusted offensive efficiency (98th in the nation).
Illinois remains a solid defensive team. They’ve held 4 of their last 5 opponents under a point per possession and rank 18th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency.
So, despite their record, the adjusted stats say this is still a pretty good team–37th best in the country according to the kenpom ratings. They’ve been a bit unlucky all season–losing three games in OT and four others by four points or fewer. (The other interpretation is that their lack of a go-to scorer and poor free throw shooting have cost them dearly in close games.)
Trent Meacham (10.5 point/game; .392 on 3-pointers) and Shaun Pruitt (12.6 points/game; .561 on 2-pointers) continue to be Illinois’ most efficient scoring options. Pruitt has scored in double figures in 6 of Illinois’ last 7 games. Third-leading scorer Brian Randle is basically done for the season (and his college career) due to a shoulder injury; he may return for a token appearance against Minnesota on Illinois’ Senior Day.
You may recall freshman Demetri McCamey’s 31-point explosion against Indiana a month ago in a game the Illini had every opportunity to win before losing in double OT. Since then, McCamey hasn’t been able to maintain his shooting touch. He’s made just 7 of 26 3-pointers (.269) in the 6 games that have followed.
At this point, Illinois is a team:
- with nothing to play for but pride.
- missing their senior leader.
- that’s only won 2 of their 7 conference home game.
- remains a very good defensive team (18th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency).
This game represents an excellent opportunity for Michigan State to get the road-game-woes monkey off their back. Izzo said the following yesterday about MSU’s road performance:
“I still don’t buy into the road weary (criticism),” he said. “I understand the stats, but I still think some of it comes down to who you play. I said last year we were 1-7 on the road because we had a team that was deserving of being 1-7 on the road, to be very frank and honest with you.
“But I think we proved early in the season we can play on the road and still think we can. I don’t think it has as much bearing as we think. I think the turnovers had more (bearing) and we turned it over at home and on the road. The way we were losing games on the road I don’t think it was because we were on the road, it was I think because of the way we played.
“I know that sounds a little ridiculous but I really believe that. I’m not trying to talk myself into it.
“I’m not worried about going on the road, to be truthful.”
The turnover thing appears (emphasis on “appears”) to finally be under control. MSU has posted TO percentages below 15% in four consecutive games. The next step is creating good shots against quality defenses–the part that didn’t come together in Madison.
The Spartans can probably win this game by gutting it out on defense and limiting Illinois’ second chance points. But, if they can win by scoring efficiently against a good defense in a hostile environment, that’d be real reason to be enthusiastic about their chances in postseason play.For some reason, this game has vanished from the kenpom website, so I’ll go back to the Sagarin ratings, which peg MSU as a 5-point favorite. My guess is kenpom would show Illinois as a slight favorite. It’ll be interesting to see where the folks in Vegas set the line.
Let’s end with the Spartans Weblog Key to the Game. I’m going to go ahead and put this on one player: Raymar Morgan. Morgan has shown flashes of getting his mojo back. He’s made 23 of 30 FG attempts (.767) in his last four games. With Randle out of action, Morgan should have mismatches offensively all night. He’s unlikely to get a lot of transition opportunities against a team that plays at a pace of just 63.0 possessions per game. We’ll see if he can find ways to score in the half-court offense.