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Illini basketball preview: Michigan State

Illinois vs. Michigan State
8 pm
Big Ten Network

If you blinked at the beginning of February, you might not have noticed that Illinois went from a god-awful-heap-of-garbage basketball team to a maybe-they-can-do-the-damn-thing basketball team. The “why” of this development is unclear (seriously, where was this team all year?), but the “how” is clear: Illinois learned how to play defense.

The Illini have won 4 of their last 5, with opposing teams scoring no more than 66 points in those wins (an average of 58.5, which is 16.5% better than opponents season average, 70 ppg). Coach John Groce has also (finally) settled on an 8-man rotation (starting Lucas, Abrams, Hill, Black, and Morgan and bringing in Coleman-Lands, Finke, and Nichols) that seems to have the right chemistry. This has put Illinois in a position (thanks to a pretty rough year all around in college hoops) to make the NCAA Tourney should they win their last two games.

Illinois ends the year on the road at Rutgers (which is probably an easy win), so the test is tonight at home on Senior Night. Michigan State is not as good as people thought they would, based on their recruiting class, but at 18-11 (10-6 in Big Ten play), they’re not bad and are on the safer side of the Tourney bubble. There aren’t a ton of individually talented scorers for the Spartans, but Miles Bridges (16.3 ppg) and Nick Ward (13.4 ppg) are freshmen who have grown into the high expectations placed on them and proven to be legit ballers. Watching Leron Black and Kipper Nichols try to shut these two down will be fun.

The game tonight actually sold out, thanks in part to free student tickets but also due to the fact that it matters. Fans have been wanting a game that matters since December. So expect it to be a good one. If you’re going, the Illini humbly request you wear orange. Something to keep in mind.

My prediction: I’m not ready to trust again, I’ve been burned too often. MSU with the dagger.

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