HQ prediction: Michigan State 72, UI 67

HQ prediction: Michigan State 72, UI 67

No. 4 Michigan State at Illinois,
7 p.m. today


Illinois (13-5, 2-3 Big Ten)
Pos.    Name    Yr.    Ht.    PPG
G    Tracy Abrams    Jr.    6-2    12.7
G    Rayvonte Rice    Jr.    6-4    17.7
G    Joseph Bertrand    Sr.    6-6    11.0
F    Jon Ekey    Sr.    6-7    7.8
C    Nnanna Egwu    Jr.    6-11    7.2
FYI: Starters have scored 80.8 percent of the team’s points this season, a percentage that ranks fifth among teams nationally in major conferences.
G    Jaylon Tate    Fr.    6-3    2.6
G    Kendrick Nunn    Fr.    6-3    3.9
G/F    Malcolm Hill    Fr.    6-6    3.3

Michigan State (16-1, 5-0 Big Ten)
Pos.    Name    Yr.    Ht.    PPG
G    Keith Appling    Sr.    6-1    16.1
G    Gary Harris    So.    6-4    17.6
G    Denzel Valentine    So.    6-5    7.0
F    Branden Dawson    Jr.    6-6    10.1
F    Adreian Payne    Sr.    6-10    16.2
FYI: Appling has tallied at least 20 points and seven assists in the same game four times this season, the most by any Big Ten player.
F    Matt Costello    So.    6-9    3.1
F    Kenny Kaminski    Fr.    6-8    5.6
G    Travis Trice    Jr.    6-0    7.3

Site: State Farm Center (16,618), Champaign.
TV: BTN — Eric Collins (play-by-play) and Jim Jackson (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: Series tied 56-56. Last meeting: No. 13 Michigan State 80, Illinois 75, Jan. 31, 2013 (East Lansing, Mich.).
FYI: This is the first home game this season for the Illini against a ranked opponent. Illinois is 1-2 against Top 25 opponents this season, defeating Missouri while losing to Oregon and Wisconsin.

Marcus Jackson’s storylines

Certainly Illinois didn’t plan to suffer a three-game losing streak this season, particularly the three games it lost. But it’s the hand the Illini have been dealt, and right now all energy is geared toward stopping the bleeding and getting back on track at home. “We’re doing all right. Coaches are always supportive of us. We stick together no matter what,” Jon Ekey said. “Guys are always positive, coming in every day watching film or coming in to practice. This is not exactly what we had in mind, but we’ve got a bunch of tough guys in here that will become closer and be ready to go.” Riding a three-game skid, there are plenty of other teams you’d like to see before Michigan State, but Illinois enters with a positive mind-set. “It’s definitely an opportunity. A three-game skid like this one, it doesn’t matter who’s next, we’ve got to be ready to go,” Ekey said.

Entering Wednesday’s game against Purdue, there was some doubt as to whether Rayvonte Rice would play for Illinois after suffering a strained adductor in the loss at Northwestern. There’s no doubt entering tonight, as Rice looked better than expected in scoring 11 points the last time out. The fact that he was in the gym early, by himself on Friday morning, is another positive indicator for Illinois. In the days leading into the Purdue game, Rice was asked to get treatment on his injury twice a day. He was in the training room three times daily, according to UI coach John Groce. “I’m feeling good,” Rice said. “I’m pretty close to 100 percent. I’m just getting treatment on it every day.” The injury doesn’t appear to be something that’s going to linger as the season progresses. “(Thursday in practice) he was better and in the game he was surprisingly better than I had anticipated,” Groce said.

The Spartans have dealt with their share of injuries this season, but the deep, experienced squad has battled through that adversity as you would expect a team that spent a month atop the national polls earlier this season. Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Gary Harris missed three games and big man Adreian Payne has missed the last two games with a right foot sprain and is questionable for tonight’s game. Izzo said Payne will sit out until he is free of pain. “It’s amazing watching them play and battle through some of the injuries they have,” Groce said. “We’re preparing as if (Payne) is playing and then we’ll adjust from there.”

Prediction: Michigan State 72, Illinois 67

The big takeaway from Wednesday’s loss to the Boilermakers was toughness, or lack thereof, for Illinois. Purdue outrebounded Illinois 23-7 in the second half and 42-28 overall. In the days following that game leading into tonight’s, Groce has made sure his team has received the message that similar efforts going forward will not be accepted. It’s especially important against Izzo-coached teams. Groce’s strategy in delivering the message, though, is between he and the players. “They’re very, very well-aware of the fact that I thought we were soft, let’s put it that way,” Groce said. “We’ll see (how they respond). Guys have to make a conscious choice every day to be tough, not only physically, but also mentally.” (N-G prediction record: 14-4).