EAST LANSING, Mich. — Tom Izzo knew exactly what his Michigan State men’s basketball players would get into when they stepped onto the Breslin Center court for Tuesday night’s date with No. 5 Illinois.
Specifically when it came to defending Illini center Kofi Cockburn.
Even after Michigan State slowed down No. 5 Illinois in an 81-72 win, Izzo kept finding different ways to talk about the 7-foot, 285-pound center.
The dean of Big Ten coaches eventually settled upon the following description for Brad Underwood’s starting lineup: “They came in with four guards and a Tarzan.”
At the end of 40 game minutes, however, it was Michigan State that had run wild on Illinois.
The Spartans’ consistent aggression paid off in a big way during their fourth straight win against Illinois at the Breslin Center. It resulted in foul issues — both Julius Marble and Thomas Kithier fouled out, and Marcus Bingham Jr. nearly joined them — but also stunted Illinois’ offense just enough to create separation.
“Street fight — that’s a good way to put it,” Izzo said. “We just kind of rotated guys in there, but we thought we had a decent game plan and we were going to dig down.”
Cockburn finished with pedestrian statistics by his standards, scoring 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting and hauling in six rebounds. The fellow big men for Illinois (16-6, 12-4 Big Ten) also didn’t have an abundance of offensive success, with Jacob Grandison held to four points and Giorgi Bezhanishvili kept scoreless.
Meanwhile, 24-year-old senior Joshua Langford battled for 16 rebounds to go with 13 points, providing a performance that both established and maintained momentum for Michigan State (12-9, 6-9). Aaron Henry largely proved hard to contain, too, with all 20 of his points coming inside the arc.
“That’s what we wanted to come out and do,” Langford said. “Give credit to Illinois. They’ve been unbelievable this year. They have great players over there. But I think in terms of us, we really wanted to believe more in ourselves and realize you can prepare for a team, but at the end of the day, you have to be able to know who you are and have an identity.”
The game’s physicality led to numerous on-the-deck scrambles and some face-to-face conversations between opposing players. That physicality also included a flagrant-2 foul on the Spartans’ Mady Sissoko, when he sent Ayo Dosunmu spilling to the ground with high contact under the net during the second half, and led to Sissoko’s ejection.
“The margin for error is really, really slim ... and we have to expect those chippy plays,” Langford said. “Especially with Illinois, we kind of expected that to happen, and so we just wanted to be the aggressor. We didn’t want to be hit first — we wanted to hit them first.”
Michigan State’s high-intensity style extended beyond the paint, as well. Dosunmu generated 17 points but only went 6 of 18 from the field.
“If you can say you contained him when he scores 17 points,” Izzo said, “but I thought we did a decent job not letting him get to his right.”
Despite the Illini sustaining its first loss since Jan. 16 against Ohio State, Izzo is confident Brad Underwood’s team will respond.
“This team is going to win a lot of games,” Izzo said. “They’re every bit as capable of going to the Final Four as some of the other three or four top teams in our league.”