Michigan St.-Illinois Preview

The Associated Press

Listening to Tom Izzo's words, one might have trouble realizing Michigan State has won nine games in a row and is on the verge of its best start in its coach's 19 seasons.

The fourth-ranked but banged-up Spartans look to end a three-game road losing streak to Illinois by dealing the Fighting Illini a fourth straight defeat Saturday night.

While pushing through multiple injuries to key players, Michigan State (16-1, 5-0 Big Ten) has found a variety of ways to win since falling to North Carolina on Dec. 4. It has won games when scoring in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 100s during its winning streak after beating Northwestern 54-40 on Wednesday.

The Spartans nearly suffered a devastating loss to then-No. 3 Ohio State on Jan. 7 before winning in overtime, and they had to rally to beat Minnesota in OT last Saturday.

Izzo is apparently unimpressed.

"We have a good team," he said. "We're not playing real good right now.''

Gary Harris, averaging a team-high 17.6 points, managed 14 and shot 5 of 13 on Wednesday after a 5-for-16 performance against Minnesota. Michigan State's 38.5 field-goal percentage Wednesday is its second-worst mark of the season, behind the 35.9 it posted against the Tar Heels.

Branden Dawson had six points, 11 rebounds and three blocks against the Wildcats while playing through an illness.

The Spartans played their second straight contest without senior big man Adreian Payne, who is dealing with sprained right foot. He's listed as questionable to face Illinois, with Izzo saying he'll keep Payne out as long as needed in order to ensure his health.

''Frustrating for him,'' Izzo said. ''Although I have to admit he actually had better suggestions on the bench than he had in the games. I appreciated him as an assistant. I thought he did a good job in the huddles, and sometimes guys grow when they don't play.''

Despite the adversity, Michigan State can surpass the 2000-01 team that reached the Final Four for its best start during the Izzo era - a squad that also reached 16-1 by beating Northwestern before dropping its next game.

The Spartans, however, haven't had much luck in Champaign in recent seasons. They turned in their worst shooting performance under Izzo the last time they faced Illinois on the road, making 24.1 percent in a 42-41 loss Jan. 31, 2012.

The Illini, though, are coming off a 66-58 home defeat to Purdue on Wednesday and have dropped their last three. Illinois (13-5, 2-3) shot 38.5 percent and has made 33.1 percent from the field over its last four.

Coach John Groce was more upset with his squad being dominated 42-28 on the glass by the Boilermakers, and it may not get any easier against a Michigan State team that has outrebounded eight of its last nine opponents.

"Our guys better figure out real quickly the physical toughness that's required," Groce said. "(Michigan State) is a very good rebounding team as well. If we're not physical and we're not tough, they could do the same thing to us."

Leading scorer Rayvonte Rice struggled to a 3-of-9 shooting performance, scoring 10 of his 11 in the first half.

"Of course we want to win, but we've got to be there for each other, keep encouraging each other and just find a way to get it done," guard Tracy Abrams said. "It's as simple as that. We've got a game Saturday and we've got to come out tough."

Michigan State won the most recent meeting 80-75 as Keith Appling scored 24 points Jan. 31 in East Lansing.

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