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Michigan State basketball: Preview and a prediction vs. No. 10 Illinois

This could be a huge win for the Spartans.

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Michigan State basketball
© Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Michigan State basketball faces a “must-win” of sorts on Thursday night at Illinois. Here’s everything you need to know.

After seeing their five-game winning streak come to an end Sunday at Northwestern, Michigan State basketball will look to get back into the win column on Thursday at Illinois. The Spartans are also looking for their first true road victory of the season.

Let’s get to know the Illini and offer a prediction on the outcome.

Scouting Illinois

The Fighting Illini have gotten off to a great start, but it remains to be seen if they are truly an elite team. The analytics are on their side (No. 8 overall in KenPom), and all three of their losses have come against top-15 teams. However, their most impressive win was on a neutral floor against a sporadic Florida Atlantic squad.

Most recently, the story with Illinois is an off-court problem involving its best player, Terrence Shannon Jr. who was suspended in late December following charges of rape. Since that time, Illinois has gone 1-1 with a 30-point win at home against Northwestern and a five-point loss at Mackey Arena against Purdue.

Earlier this week, news broke that Shannon was filing a temporary restraining order seeking an immediate return to the team. Even if that ruling goes in his favor, it’s no guarantee that Brad Underwood will allow him to come back and play. As uncomfortable as it is to discuss, his presence looms quite large as it pertains to this game. Shannon has scored in double figures in every game he’s played this season. He’s a 41 percent 3-point shooter that is also a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-6.

Per KenPom, Illinois currently has the sixth most efficient offense in America. This is largely fueled by their production in the paint and its offensive rebounding. Illinois is rated as the 10th-tallest team in America, with only one player smaller than 6-foot-4 receiving regular minutes. The Illini are content playing up-tempo and are an average 3-point shooting team.

On the defensive end of the court, Illinois’ length has been an enormous problem for opponents this season. Opponents are shooting just 41 percent on their two-point attempts – the second lowest mark in the country. They don’t force turnovers, and as a result, are able to play defense without fouling.

It’s a small sample size, but the drop-off for Illinois without Shannon appears to be minimal. After throttling Northwestern, they impressively battled back against Purdue to make a game of it. Marcus Domask and Quincy Guerrier, in particular, were outstanding in that game. We’ve seen this before with Michigan State basketball teams in the past where a star player’s absence forces others to step up.

The question for Illinois is whether or not this level of efficiency on offense without Shannon is sustainable. His absence leaves a large gap in its 3-point shooting and ability to get to the free throw line. Through three games in Big Ten play, Illinois owns the most efficient offense in the conference. That has been aided by shooting 47 percent from three and grabbing an offensive rebound on 40 percent of possessions. Looking at the season-long shooting stats for heavy contributors like Domask, Guerrier, and Coleman Hawkins, it’s easy to see some negative regression coming their way.

Michigan State update

The Spartans come into Thursday’s matchup humbled after losing by 14 at Northwestern last weekend. It was far and away their worst defensive performance of the season. It’s a large reason why MSU’s defense ranks 12th in defensive efficiency in conference play. It’s a small sample size, but through four games, the Spartan defense isn’t forcing misses, generating turnovers, or getting any gifts from opponents at the free throw line. Teams are shooting an absurd 88 percent from the line against the Spartans in Big Ten play.

If MSU is going to turn things around on defense, it has to start with defensive rebounding. It’s clear at this point that the Spartans don’t have the personnel to be a great rebounding team. But so much of rebounding is about effort and focus. MSU can at least be average if it is emphasized and drilled on a particular night. If there was ever a night to test that theory, it’ll be on Thursday. The Illini are an elite offensive rebounding team, and figure to spray a few more misses than normal without Shannon. There’s no doubt Tom Izzo made it a point of emphasis this week after Sunday’s performance. Illinois will provide a stiff test.

Offensively, MSU continues to rely heavily on guard play. Tyson Walker, in particular, has been asked to shoulder a big load. When he’s putting up massive point totals, it’s usually because there’s nobody else to help. Jaden Akins’ shooting has improved. A.J. Hoggard seems to be seeing the floor better. Those two have been “reliable” options of late. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess as to what you’ll get from Malik Hall, Tre Holloman, Mady Sissoko, and Carson Cooper.

MSU doesn’t have a scoring threat in the post. Malik Hall has some moves that work if he’s matched against a smaller defender. But for the most part, MSU’s big men score on offensive rebounds or in transition. Teams have countered that by trying to slow the Spartans down. Without a threat in the frontcourt, MSU’s “best” shots in the half court are often contested mid-range jumpers or open 3-pointers.

The challenge for Izzo is trying to find the right balance of players that can score and rebound. Offensively, Michigan State is at its best when they play small with Malik Hall and Coen Carr on the floor together. But that lineup isn’t sustainable because it gives up too much on the glass. The Spartans need Cooper and/or Sissoko. Unfortunately, it’s been a challenge balancing those minutes and determining who their best option is at any point in time. Izzo is searching for answers. Even freshman Xavier Booker has seen an uptick in his minutes over the past month.

Prediction

Illinois comes in as a 3.5-point favorite with a total of 147.5. The line indicates that Shannon’s suspension will continue, as KenPom makes this a six-point game with him in the lineup. This is a really tough game to get a read on. The spot screams Michigan State basketball after it was physically pushed around on Sunday at Northwestern. Tom Izzo didn’t like that one bit. You know it was an intense week of practice in East Lansing.

This also feels like a spot where Illinois comes back to earth a little bit. They’ve played well in two games without their best player, but the underlying metrics suggest it may not be sustainable. At the same time, this game is personal for Brad Underwood. He’s sung the praises of Izzo for years. He’s attempting to model this Illinois program after Michigan State.

The Spartans are also squarely in “prove it” mode with their play on the road. MSU is 1-4 in neutral site or away games this season. That lone win came in Detroit, which was essentially a home game in every sense.

To me, this comes down to how Underwood wants to play it. Analytically, Illinois is an up-tempo team. If they want to turn this into a track meet, that favors Michigan State. The Spartans would love to use their guards in space and hide the offensive deficiencies of their big men in a half-court setting. Illinois may be content to do the same.

This total seems a little high to me. Even though I suspect it will be an up-tempo game, Illinois’ shooting regression and length on defense makes me think this could become a sloppy, frustrating game. In that setting, I like Michigan State basketball. I think we get a focused effort in what is one of few resume-boosting opportunities remaining on the road. Illinois really misses Shannon for the first time.

Final score: Michigan State 70, Illinois 68

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