Two weeks into the Big Ten season, it’s no surprise Michigan State is atop the league standings. That it’s sharing the lead with Illinois likely wasn’t expected.
The seventh-ranked Spartans look for a sixth consecutive victory overall and fifth straight over the Illini on Saturday in a matchup of the only unbeaten teams in Big Ten play.
After reaching last year’s national title game, Michigan State (14-3, 4-0) was picked in the preseason to defend its regular-season conference championship.
The Spartans opened league play with a 91-70 win at then-No. 25 Northwestern and a 54-47 home victory over then-No. 17 Wisconsin before an 18-point victory at struggling Iowa. Now, Michigan State is trying to open 5-0 in the league for the second straight season after beating Minnesota 60-53 on Wednesday.
Standing in the way is Illinois (12-5, 4-0), off to its best start since winning the first 15 league games during its 2004-05 national runner-up season. Though his teams have won three in a row over the Illini at the Breslin Center, Spartans coach Tom Izzo is not taking anything for granted.
“It’s not going to get any easier,” said Izzo, who posted his 350th career victory Wednesday.
Since conference play began, Michigan State is holding opponents to 55.8 points per game and 37.6 percent from the field.
“Defense fires us up as a team,” sophomore Draymond Green told the school’s official Web site after the Spartans forced 15 turnovers while holding the Gophers to their lowest point total of the season.
“If one guy is getting down (on the floor) giving everything he’s got, it’s telling you, ‘I can’t let him down, I got to give it everything I’ve got.’ It trickles down to everyone.”
The Illini have limited the opposition to a league-low 34.8 percent from the floor in Big Ten play, but their own shooting problems have proved costly in East Lansing. They’ve shot a combined 36.5 percent in the last three visits, averaging 51.7 points.
Illinois failed to crack the 60-point mark in six consecutive meetings overall until ending that streak in the most recent matchup, but the visiting Spartans still posted their fourth straight win in the series—74-66 on March 1.
Another strong defensive outing could help Michigan State if it can’t improve on its season-low 36.2-percent shooting effort against Minnesota.
Kalin Lucas had 14 points with five assists, while Durrell Summers added 13 with eight rebounds as the Spartans grinded out their 15th straight home victory.
“Good teams do what Michigan State does,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. “They find a way to win games.”
Lucas, who has scored in double figures in 28 straight games, is averaging 15.5 points and 3.9 assists. He scored 18 in the March 1 win at Illinois.
The Illini have struggled to remain unbeaten in the Big Ten. They needed overtime to beat then-No. 25 Northwestern, rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to win at Indiana and most recently, defeated Penn State 54-53 at home Tuesday. Illinois’ four conference wins have come against the teams at the bottom of the league standings, with a combined 2-14 record.
After coming off the bench his previous two games, junior Demetri McCamey was back in the starting lineup Tuesday and had 25 points with five assists for the Illini, who shot 38.9 percent.
McCamey, who hit a jumper with 1:02 left against Penn State to give Illinois the lead for good, is averaging 18.3 points and 6.7 assists in his last four games. He’s averaging 5.5 points in four career games against Michigan State.
Illinois is 2-0 against ranked opponents this season after beating Northwestern and winning 76-74 at then-No. 18 Clemson on Dec. 2.