EAST LANSING, Mich. — Though the freezing temperatures and snow falling from the sky in central Michigan suggest otherwise, it’s spring break at Michigan State. With students who typically surround the court wearing white T-shirts making up the Izzone likely knocking back beverages on a beach somewhere, Saturday’s cheering section was made up of alumni.
The old folks knew little about John Groce’s Illinois squad.
“I don’t think they’ve been very good since Dee Brown left,” one of the alums was overheard saying.
Funny you should mention Dee Brown, alumni guy, because the last time Michigan State lost on its home floor to the Illini was March 4, 2006, when Brown still was rocking an orange headband and James Augustine was plucking rebounds at an alarming rate.
It was the last win, of course, until Groce’s Illini pulled a 53-46 upset of the 18th-ranked Spartans in front of 14,797 — including Bulls great Scottie Pippen — on Saturday at the Breslin Center.
That Michigan State alum going on about Brown, he was probably an Izzone regular eight years ago. Illinois’ Malcolm Hill, who scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds Saturday, was in fifth grade.
“I wasn’t even an Illinois fan yet,” the freshman said. “That’s when I was rocking the goggles. We really haven’t won here since fifth grade? I’m humbled to be a part of this experience.”
The experience was made possible by another outstanding defensive effort by the Illini (17-12, 6-10 Big Ten), who now have held four consecutive opponents under 50 points. It was the lowest point total of the season for Michigan State (22-7, 11-5), which entered Saturday averaging 77.3 points per game, and the fewest they had scored in a regular season game since a 42-41 loss at Illinois on Jan. 31, 2012.
“That’s hard to do in this league with the great coaches and great teams,” Groce said. “The guys in our locker room and their effort, I thought their toughness on the defensive end has obviously been very consistent for several games. We’re playing as good as we’ve played on that end.”
Illinois frustrated the potent Michigan State offense Saturday by forcing 16 turnovers, 14 of them as a result of steals. Tracy Abrams (12 points, four assists) and Rayvonte Rice (10 points, five rebounds) had five steals apiece.
“Whoa!” Abrams said at learning of the steals stat. “That’s definitely a result of the way we’re playing. We’re all just locked in. We’re executing at a high level right now and letting it carry over each game.”
Michigan State’s Gary Harris scored a game-high 19 points on 7-of-16 shooting and was the only Spartan to reach double figures against Illinois’ swarming defense.
Kendrick Nunn added eight points and six rebounds for the Illini, while Jon Ekey scored seven off the bench.
All of a sudden an Illini team that appeared in serious danger of missing postseason basketball after losing eight straight is almost a certain lock for the NIT after three consecutive wins. Heck, the NCAA tournament isn’t out of the picture, with games remaining against No. 16 Michigan and No. 20 Iowa before the Big Ten tournament.
“Tracy said it best in the locker room, ‘Just take it game by game,’ ”
said Nnanna Egwu (four points, four rebounds, three blocks). “We can’t look too far ahead. We have to take which game comes along, try to win that game and then go on to the next.”
Hard as it may be to live in the moment, that’s the message being spread throughout the Illinois locker room.
“Absolutely (it’s hard),” Egwu said. “We’ve won these games by doing that, and we’ve got to stay consistent with that.”