Michigan State is on the verge of winning its first Big Ten title in eight years, but it’s hardly been playing like a championship-caliber team lately. The Spartans have picked up victories against some of the league’s weaker teams over the past few weeks, but another lackluster effort likely won’t be enough against Illinois, one of the best defensive teams in the nation.
No. 9 Michigan State looks to break out of its offensive funk and earn a share of the Big Ten title Sunday when it visits the 20th-ranked Illini, who are trying to keep their conference title hopes alive.
The Spartans (22-5, 12-3) have a 1 1/2-game lead in the Big Ten over Illinois (23-6, 11-5) and No. 16 Purdue, and still have three games remaining to just two for both the Illini and Boilermakers.
After this game, Michigan State visits last-place Indiana on Tuesday before closing the regular season at home against Purdue next Sunday.
Despite being within one victory of its first conference title since winning four straight from 1998-2001, Michigan State has struggled lately.
The Spartans have won three of their last four games, but looked awful in a 72-54 loss at Purdue on Feb. 17, and didn’t look very sharp in victories over Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa.
In its latest game—Wednesday’s 62-54 win over the Hawkeyes—leading scorer Kalin Lucas finished with a season-low four points as freshmen Delvon Roe and Korie Lucious bailed the team out.
Roe scored a season-high 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting, while Lucious added a season-high 12.
“We would have lost (without them), to be honest with you,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “And we could have anyway. We didn’t play very good, not very inspired. … You would have to classify us as kind of dysfunctional right now offensively. It’s just been a struggle.”
Michigan State boasts the top-ranked scoring offense in the Big Ten (72.9), but is averaging 57.8 points on 41.3 percent shooting in its last four.
“The (Big Ten) championship is big to me, but there’s a bigger picture to be looking at,” Izzo said. “This team has to get better and more cohesive and more on track.”
Getting on track against the Illini won’t be easy.
Illinois has the nation’s second-ranked defense (55.7 points) and has yielded 68 points or less in 27 of 29 games. In eight conference home games, the Illini have allowed an average of 47.9 points on 35.0 percent shooting.
Michigan State defeated Illinois 63-57 at home on Jan. 17, but it wasn’t easy. The Spartans rallied from a nine-point second-half deficit, and Lucas, who is averaging 14.4 points, finished with 10 on just 3-of-13 shooting
“We have hung our hat on defense all year,” Illini guard Trent Meacham said after Illinois limited Minnesota to 31.7 percent shooting in a 52-41 victory Thursday.
Mike Davis led the Illini with 14 points and 11 rebounds against the Golden Gophers, while Meacham added 13 points and sophomore Demetri McCamey had 10.
Meacham, one of four seniors playing his final game at Assembly Hall, and McCamey have been leading Illinois’ offense lately, but combined for just six points on 1-of-16 shooting against Michigan State.
The Illini have lost three straight to the Spartans and five of the last six meetings.
The Spartans are 6-1 in Big Ten road games, one victory shy of matching the school record for conference road wins set in 1978 and matched in 1999.
The Illini are 14-2 at Assembly Hall this season and have won nine straight senior day games at Assembly Hall dating back to 1999.