UI 53, No. 18 Michigan State 46: Notebook

UI 53, No. 18 Michigan State 46: Notebook

EAST LANSING, Mich. — It’s now been six games since Illinois coach John Groce inserted freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill into the Illinois starting lineup. Since then, the Illini have won four of six, including Saturday’s 53-46 triumph against No. 18 Michigan State at the Breslin Center, and three in a row.

Nunn, who hadn’t reached double figures in his career until his first start Feb. 9 at Penn State, is averaging 12.2 points as a starter. Hill, who had reached double figures once in the first 23 games, is averaging 10.7 points in his new role.

“I love what those freshmen are doing. These guys just go along and play,” ESPN analyst Dan Dakich said. “Nunn is an absolute killer. Nunn’s the kind of guy that everybody else, for whatever reason, gets really confident with him in the game. They know he can play, they know he can score, they know he’s tough. Hill has come on. Once he gets stronger, he’s going to be an all-league kind of guy.”

Groce’s move has energized the team and given it a shot in the arm in the home stretch of the season. With two games remaining before the Big Ten tournament, Illinois has almost assured itself of playing in a postseason tournament.

“I think they’re playing great, and I thought that even before this game,” Dakich said. “Their defense is ridiculously good. Nobody can get to 50 against them; that’s pretty good.”

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Saturday, for the first time since Jan. 21, Branden Dawson suited up in a game for Michigan State. When the 6-foot-6 forward went to the scorer’s table to check in less than three minutes into the game, the Breslin Center crowd began cheering. The fans got louder when he walked onto the court, and the place was up for grabs when Dawson scored on a short runner during his first offensive possession.

“I thought Dawson played phenomenally despite the 30-some-odd days he’s missed,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Dawson broke a bone in his right hand during a film session after Michigan State’s Jan. 21 game against Indiana when he grew frustrated with himself upon reviewing the tape. He told reporters it happened while watching film and hearing Dakich’s comments during the broadcast that Michigan State’s national championship hopes hinged on his intensity. The Spartans went 4-5 in Dawson’s absence.

Dakich got different information on the situation before Saturday’s game.

“I talked to Izzo (on Saturday morning), and he said they showed Dawson the video the day before he broke his hand,” the former Indiana player and coach said. “If I’m going to get blamed, I at least want to do it.”

Dawson played 25 minutes Saturday, scoring six points to go along with seven rebounds.

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Tuesday’s game against Big Ten leader Michigan is the last at State Farm Center as we know it. Following Tuesday’s tilt, the 51-year-old building will begin a major phase of a $157 million renovation project that will be completed in time for the 2015-16 season.

It’s also the final home game for fifth-year seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey, and the Illinois folks are hoping for a full house. UI ticket manager Jason Heggemeyer said Saturday that fans can get four tickets for $40 to attend the game against Michigan.

“It’s the last home game for Joe and Ekey, and we’re trying to build a really good crowd to close out the year. It’s the last game in the building as we know it right now. We thought it was a good opportunity to get as many local people in that building as possible for the last time,” Heggemeyer said. “Obviously, the game now takes on more meaning, so we think a lot of people are going to respond to this offer. We’ve already had a good response. We’ve sold 1,000 of them and we’re pretty excited, and hopefully we can sell this thing out.”

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The mood inside the Breslin Center following Saturday’s game was sour. It was the sixth consecutive weekend in which the Spartans had lost, and a season that began with national championship aspirations and included the longest stretch at No. 1 in program history is at a crossroads with two games remaining in the Big Ten season. Injuries to Dawson, Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling haven’t helped matters.

Appling, the senior point guard, appeared to be affected by an injured right wrist Saturday. The injury has been an issue for weeks.

“Keith Appling is a major problem right now because he can’t do what he could do, so they’re now backing off of him, and there’s nowhere for him to go,” Izzo said. “We can’t get a (fast) break going because they were getting layups out there.”

Illinois shot 47.7 percent from the floor and scored 25 points off Michigan State turnovers and got back on defense quickly, preventing the Spartans from being effective in transition.

“He’s not effective in the halfcourt. He’s getting better. He actually had a pretty good week in practice compared to the weeks before that. Compared to how he was playing at the beginning of Big Ten season, he’s not there, so some of that is not confidence, he just can’t do it,” Izzo said. “As the weeks go on, I think his wrist is pretty good now. He just needs rep after rep. He’s been working on his shot, he really has. It’s going to take some time.”

Dakich has noticed that Appling’s injury has hampered the team.

“I think Appling is really hurt. He looked hurt (Saturday),” Dakich said. “Tom has always said when he has a point guard that can play really fast, makes good decisions and can score, he can be really good, and that’s why they were good early. I feel bad for Keith because he was having a terrific year, and you can just see he can’t do anything. It just kills them, absolutely kills them. Dawson’s back, that’s fine, that’s great. But Appling being banged up is huge for them.”

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NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen watched Saturday’s game from the stands at the Breslin Center. The six-time NBA champion with the Bulls was here as a guest of former Spartan and current radio analyst Matt Steigenga, a close friend. It’s at least the second Illini game Pippen has watched this season. He tweeted earlier this season during Illinois’ win against Chicago State. The Cougars’ top scorer is Quinton Pippen, Scottie’s nephew.

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Illinois guard Mike LaTulip didn’t see action in Saturday’s game, but he got plenty of it Friday. In practice, the sophomore got tangled up with Bertrand going for a rebound. The result, a couple of long cuts on the right side of his face.

“It felt like my eye popped out of my head,” LaTulip said. “It actually looks a lot better than it did (Friday).”