Michigan State and Illinois have rarely been mismatched over the past decade, and the perennial Big Ten contenders have developed a strong rivalry. This year, there’s a noticeable gap.
The eighth-ranked Spartans (18-2, 6-1) look to record their best 21-game start in school history on Wednesday when they meet the struggling Illini at the Breslin Center.
Illinois and Michigan State have split their last 20 games since Feb. 15, 1997, meeting five times when both teams have been in the Top 25. But this season it’s the Spartans who have earned a national ranking, while the Illini (10-11, 2-6) are in danger of finishing with a losing record for just the second time in 16 years.
Michigan State has been to four Final Fours since 1998-99, but the Spartans have never won 19 of their first 21 games in the program’s 109-year history. They began the 2000-01 campaign 18-2 before losing their next game to then-No. 7 Illinois, but eventually made it to their third consecutive national semifinal.
“(19-2) does mean something because this team can hang its hat on that,” coach Tom Izzo said. “Every team wants to leave a legacy, and that could be part of what this team is remembered for down the road.”
The Spartans’ players seem more concerned with how they finish rather than their potentially record-breaking start.
“It’s great, but that’s not our goal,” said senior guard Drew Neitzel. “We want to hang a banner and win a couple of championships.”
Neitzel, a preseason All-American, was named the Big Ten player of the week on Monday after averaging 19.0 points, 6.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds in the Spartans’ two games last week - a 78-62 win at Northwestern on Thursday and a 77-62 home victory over Michigan on Sunday.
His 18 points against the Wolverines were tied for a team high with the player who figures to be the Spartans’ point guard next season - freshman Kalin Lucas.
Lucas started his first five collegiate games but struggled, averaging 6.2 points on just 30.0 percent shooting. But since being replaced by junior Travis Walton in the starting lineup, Lucas has thrived - averaging 11.1 points and 4.1 assists off the bench as the Spartans have won 14 of 15.
“It’s been a while since a freshman has played at this level as consistently and as good for us,” said Izzo, who also called Lucas the quickest player he’s coached in 13 years as a head coach and 25 seasons on Michigan State’s bench.
The Spartans are only Big Ten team with a perfect home record at 12-0.
Illinois had lost seven of its past eight games prior to a 70-37 throttling of conference-worst Northwestern on Sunday, its biggest win since beating Purdue 84-50 on March 3, 2005 - a month before the Illini lost to North Carolina in the national championship game.
Since losing its Big Ten opener 74-58 to Ohio State on Jan. 3, Illinois has been competitive in all of its losses. The Illini’s worst defeat was a 70-60 loss at then-No. 21 Wisconsin on Jan. 10, and they led at 10th-ranked Indiana late in the second half three days later before falling 62-58.
Senior center Shaun Pruitt is Illinois’ best player, averaging 12.8 points and 7.7 rebounds. But Pruitt was suspended by coach Bruce Weber for the Illini’s Jan. 22 loss to Ohio State after displaying a bad attitude following the team’s loss at Purdue three days earlier.
He returned against Northwestern, scoring nine points in 17 minutes off the bench.
Illinois has won three of its past five trips to Michigan State, though the Spartans won 63-57 last season.