Beat writer Jeff Huth takes a closer look at tonight's game.
Sneak Peek: Illinois at Michigan State, 6 p.m. Thursday
Illinois (8-10, 1-4 Big Ten)
Pos. Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Ivory Crawford Jr. 5-10 15.4
G Alexis Smith Jr. 5-9 8.3
G Sarah Hartwell So. 5-10 8.6
G/F Amber Moore Sr. 5-11 16.3
C Jacqui Grant Fr. 6-3 12.9
FYI: Crawford ranks second in Big Ten scoring average in conference games at 20.4 points.
OFF THE BENCH
G/F Taylor Tuck Jr. 6-0 4.2
G Taylor Gleason Fr. 5-8 3.2
F Nia Oden Jr. 5-10 2.1
Michigan State (12-6, 4-1 Big Ten)
Pos. Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Kiana Johnson Jr. 5-7 8.6
G Klarissa Bell Sr. 5-11 8.9
G Aerial Powers Fr. 6-0 13.9
F Annalise Pickrel Sr. 6-3 14.0
F Becca Mills Jr. 6-4 8.9
FYI: Powers has five 10-rebound games, tied for seventh most among Big Ten players.
OFF THE BENCH
G Tori Jankoska Fr. 5-8 11.3
G Branndais Agee Fr. 5-11 5.3
C Jasmine Hines Jr. 6-3 3.1
Site: Breslin Center (14,759), East Lansing, Mich.
Series: Michigan State leads 36-27. Last meeting: Michigan State 79, Illinois 75 on Jan. 13, 2013, at Champaign.
Radio: Taped delayed on WDWS 1400-AM following Illini men’s basketball postgame show; Dave Loane (play-by-play) and Mike Koon (analyst).
Internet: Live stream at www.fightingillini.com/allaccess 
FYI: Michigan State will visit Illinois on Feb. 5 (7 p.m.).
Jeff Huth’s storylines
1. A veteran Michigan State team was expected to have a say in the Big Ten title race, and so far the Spartans are in full throat. Coach Suzy Merchant’s bunch belted Nebraska — picked No. 1 in the Big Ten coaches’ preseason poll — by 13 points Jan. 9 and was 4-0 in the league before losing to current No. 13 Penn State on Sunday. Illini coach Matt Bollant has a high regard for MSU’s backcourt of Johnson and Bell, and he well remembers how the Spartans dominated the boards (49-22) in the teams’ lone meeting last season. With the likes of Pickrel and Mills back, MSU ranks fourth in the Big Ten in rebound margin (+6.7). “Physically, they‘re one of the best teams in the league,” Bollant said. “They’re athletic at the guards, and they’ve got great size and rebound the ball extremely well.”
2. Last season, Illinois outscored its opponents at the free throw line for the first time in five campaigns. The current Illini squad has some work to do if it is to duplicate that feat. Through 18 games, Illinois has been outscored at the line 295-222 while taking 103 fewer attempts. The Illini were holding their own in this area until recently. They’ve been outscored at the line in each of their last seven games by a cumulative 123-59, including 20-3 in Saturday’s loss at Michigan. Coincidentally or not, the Illini are 2-5 in that seven-game span. A couple of factors are at play in the UI’s regression: Then-seniors Karisma Penn and Adrienne GodBold accounted for 50.1 percent of made free throws and 50.2 percent of attempts last season. Also, the officials this season have been directed to call a tighter game, and Illinois’ aggressiveness on defense is resulting in more trips to the line for opponents. Bollant has reminded his players that the tighter calls cut both ways. “Offensively, we’re trying to attack and be aggressive, and you’ll get to the foul line if that happens,” he said.
3. Illini senior Amber Moore will renew acquaintances tonight with two of her former high school teammates at Detroit Country Day. Spartans redshirt junior center Madison Williams and Moore played three seasons together at the Michigan school. MSU redshirt freshman guard Aerial Powers played varsity as a freshman during Moore’s senior season at Country Day. “I’m really good friends with them,” Moore said. “It’s just fun to know that you’ve played with some of these girls and just to help my (UI) teammates out because I know some of their techniques. ... It’s beneficial.” This trio helped Country Day win a Class B state title during Moore’s senior year. Moore and Williams also played on a state championship team one season earlier. Country Day might be better known for producing NBA players like Chris Webber and Shane Battier, but the girls’ basketball team need not take a backseat. Frank Orlando has coached his Yellowjackets girls’ program to 10 state titles. “I think it is a powerhouse,” Moore said. At least one more Country Day player is headed to the Big Ten next season. Senior point guard Asia Doss, who was an Illini recruiting target, signed with Ohio State in November.
MSU 71, Illinois 62
It’s been a rough stretch for the Illini — losers of five of their last six — and it doesn’t get any easier tonight. The Spartans have won seven of their last nine, with both defeats to ranked opponents. MSU might break into the AP Top 25 soon, too, having received the 27th-most points in voting this week. The so-called Sixth Man in the stands doesn’t work in Illinois’ favor, either, tonight. The Spartans have drawn an average of 6,347 fans to nine home games this season, No. 2 in the Big Ten. (N-G prediction record: 16-2)