Beat writer Marcus Jackson, who finally snapped out of his prediction slump Sunday, breaks down tonight's Big Ten contest (6 p.m., ESPN):
Illinois (15-6, 2-5 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Tracy Abrams So. 6-1 11.3
G D.J. Richardson Sr. 6-3 11.8
G Brandon Paul Sr. 6-4 17.9
F Sam McLaurin Sr. 6-8 4.0
C Nnanna Egwu So. 6-11 6.3
FYI: Egwu grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds in Sunday’s loss to Michigan, tying the mark he set in the previous game last week at Nebraska.
OFF THE BENCH
G Joseph Bertrand Jr. 6-6 8.5
F Tyler Griffey Sr. 6-9 7.3
F Myke Henry So. 6-6 3.1
Michigan State (17-4, 6-2 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Keith Appling Jr. 6-1 13.5
G Gary Harris Fr. 6-4 12.7
G Branden Dawson So. 6-6 10.6
F Derrick Nix Sr. 6-9 9.0
F Adreian Payne Jr. 6-10 9.4
FYI: Payne is averaging 13 points and is shooting 70 percent from the field in his last six games, including a career-high 20 off the bench at Penn State.
OFF THE BENCH
G Travis Trice So. 6-0 5.8
G Denzel Valentine Fr. 6-5 4.9
F Alex Gauna So. 6-9 1.7
Site: Breslin Center (14,759), East Lansing, Mich.
TV: ESPN — Joe Tessitore (play-by-play) and Sean Farnham (analyst) have the call.
Radio: Brian Barnhart (play-by-play) and former Illini Jerry Hester (expert analysis) have the call on the Illini Sports Network on WDWS 1400-AM, WDAN 1490-AM, WHMS 97.5-FM, WDNL 102.1-FM and WPXN 104.9-FM.
Series: Illinois leads 56-55. Last meeting — Illinois 42, Michigan State 41, Jan. 31, 2012.
FYI: Illinois has lost five straight at the Breslin Center, by an average of 7.2 points per game. The last win for the Illini in East Lansing was a 75-68 win in March 2006.
MARCUS JACKSON'S STORYLINES
Nnanna Egwu, Illinois’ blossoming center, said Michigan State’s frontcourt of Payne, Nix and Dawson will be the Illini’s toughest test of the season. Coach John Groce went as far as to say even the big guys off the Spartans’ bench will be a load for the Illini. MSU’s three frontcourt starters average at least 9.0 points and 6.7 rebounds. An NBA scout recently said Payne reminds him of Olympic gold medalist and former NBA Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, only that Payne probably will be better. “Guarding the post, guarding inside, rebounding, boxing out, it’s going to be one of the toughest games so far,” Egwu said. “It’s going to be a huge test for us, but we’re up for it.”
Though the Illini will have their hands full, Groce has been pleased with the progress his big men have shown in recent outings. Egwu is averaging 5.3 rebounds in his last six games and has taken over the team lead. Griffey tied his season high with six in two of the last three games, and McLaurin is averaging seven points and five boards the last three games. “I think they’ve gotten a lot better. We’re getting it inside more, they’re sealing better, our passing has gotten better,” Groce said. “They offer us a presence on the glass ... (assistant coach) Dustin (Ford) does a great job with the 4 and 5s, and they’ve been approaching practice from the mind-set of getting better on both ends.”
Since he arrived at Illinois, Groce has stated he’d like to play at least nine guys in the regular rotation, maybe even 10. That hasn’t materialized, as the Illini have basically been working with a seven-man rotation in Big Ten play. Myke Henry was a regular, but his minutes have diminished lately. The eighth and ninth men figured to come from the recruiting class of 2011 that also included Devin Langford, Mike Shaw and Ibby Djimde. “Depends on the day,” Groce said when asked how that group has performed. “Their attitudes have been great; they work at it. They’ve got to be better. I’d like to play all of them, but they determine that. Consistency’s probably been lacking a bit.”
PREDICTION: Michigan State 67, Illinois 64
The last 14 games in this series have been decided by 10 points or less, so chances are it can come down to the wire. The key for the Illini will be making shots, something they haven’t done consistently lately. The effort has been there, and the players continue to prepare well for games. The coaches have been impressed with the focus in practices of late. They’d be forthcoming if that wasn’t the case. “I thought we practiced really well, did some really good things,” Groce said. “I feel like we’re getting better in a lot of areas; we’ve got to shore up a couple other areas and hope to make a few more shots. I like the direction that our execution is headed, for sure. The past couple of weeks, the way guys have approached practice has been very mature.” (N-G record: 12-9)