Illini Basketball Preview - Illini vs Michigan State

Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer

January 25, 2022


#24 ILLINOIS (13-5, 6-2) vs. #10 Michigan State (15-3, 6-1)
Date | Time Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022 | 6 p.m. CT
Location Champaign, Ill. | State Farm Center | Illinois Athletics Vaccination Policy
Television ESPN (Jason Benetti, Robbie Hummel & Myron Medcalf)
Live Stream | ESPN App
Radio  Busey Bank Illini Sports Network | Listen | Varsity Network App | Sirius 83, XM 83, SXM App 83

This game has been one circled by fans of both programs since the Illini lost to the Spartans in East Lansing after Ayo Dosunmu had his nose broken on a play that had little to do with basketball. Illinois enters Tuesday's game against No. 10 Michigan State with yet another opportunity against a highly ranked team. Last year with six wins over top-10 opponents, Illinois set a school single-season record. The Illini are 9-9 during the Underwood era against top-10 teams but are 9-4 in their last 13 games against top-10 teams after starting 0-5 early in his tenure.

The all-time rivalry is a close one with Michigan State leading 64-60 and the Spartans are on a 3-game winning streak. At home, the Illini are up 39-21. Under Coach Underwood, the Illini are 1-5 against the Spartans. When including its run to the 2021 Big Ten Tournament championship, Illinois had won 13 straight games against conference opponents until the Purdue loss. Illinois is now 20-3 in its last 23 games versus league foes.

Tonight's game represents an opportunity for Trent Frazier to become the Fighting Illini's 10th leading scorer of all time. Having scored 1648 points, Frazier is only 5 points away from the late Mark Smith who scored 1653 points from 1977-1981. Brandon Paul is at 1654 points scored from 2009-2013. Barring injury, Frazier should end up as the 9th leading scorer in Illini history during this clash. With a big game, he might dramatically reduce the game between he and the #8 leading scorer, Illini Legend Eddie Johnson (teammate of Mark Smith mentioned earlier), who scored 1692 points from 1977-1981.

The bottom line is Illinois is coming off two losses – one in double overtime to current #6 Purdue, and the other at Maryland - where Illinois was without their all-American center, Kofi Cockburn. It is critical for Illinois to get back to their winning ways within conference play, and this Michigan State game will provide an elusive signature win to the Illini tournament resume.

It’s hard to forget how last year’s matchup in East Lansing went down – specifically, how physically the game was played. The dirty play that led to Ayo Dosunmu’s concussion undoubtedly left a sour taste in Brad Underwood’s mouth. Both teams are likely to bring animosity to the court, which is sure to make for an intriguing game for viewers. With Kofi suffering a concussion that was likely at the elbow of Zach Edey (on yet another play without a foul), Illini fans will have little patience for controversial B1G referee whistles.

Two Questions

Can Illinois get back to their ways on the defensive end to slow down the Spartan Offense?

Courtesy AP Photo by Carlos Osorio

It’s safe to say that Illinois’ defense will take a step up from what we saw against Maryland if Kofi Cockburn returns to the court.  This Michigan State team, however, is unlike most of the teams Illinois has matched up with so far. They don’t rely on any one player to facilitate the offense.  When Illinois has played similar teams – Michigan State last year, Maryland last year, Cincinnati earlier this year – they’ve struggled to get stops. Whether or not that’s due to personnel or the style itself remains to be seen.

This Michigan State team is starting to build their confidence back after a rough loss to Northwestern at home. If Illinois can’t get stops against Michigan State it will be tough to pull off a victory as we know how Michigan State defends on the other end of the court.

If the effort against the much lesser Maryland team was any indication, should the Illini be forced to play without Cockburn, it will be an even bigger challenge. Omar Payne was prone to foul trouble in his limited minutes, and while Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk played fine, he wasn’t able to replicate the exceptional game he had against Purdue. Illinois will need significantly more rebounding from these two players to compensate for how small Illinois typically goes on the perimeter. With Illinois’ last game results, it will be interesting to see how Underwood adjusts moving forward in the potential absence of Cockburn.

How can the Illini guards pressure Michigan State’s backcourt?

Alfonso Plummer courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys.

With Trent Frazier and Alfonso Plummer manning the one and two for the Illini, it’s safe to say they have some of the most consistent backcourt players in the entire country. Unfortunately, with the question marks surrounding Andre Curbelo and his return, a lot is on their shoulders at the moment. This was readily apparent during the matchup against the Terrapins. For these two to affect the game, they will need at least one other player to step up at the guard position because neither can play at a high level for forty minutes in one night.

Against Michigan State, it will be key to put pressure on their guards so their wings and bigs are forced to make plays. Getting them off rhythm – especially Tyson Walker and AJ Hoggard – will be critical, as they combine for 10 of the Spartan’s roughly 17 assists per game.

Should Curbelo be on the court and playing at the level he played against Purdue, Illinois will have a much easier time on both ends of the court.

Prediction: Illinois 65 – Michigan State 68

With the uncertainty surrounding both Curbelo and Cockburn, it’s hard to predict a win against a top ten opponent. Even with them out, Illinois should be able to keep it close as they understand the stakes surrounding a matchup versus another team contending for the conference championship. Michigan State’s depth and lack of reliance on any singular player makes the Spartans a safer bet that they will pull off a victory.






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