|Who:||Michigan State Spartans vs. Illinois Fighting Illini|
|When:||Sunday Feb 22, 7:30 p.m. ET|
|Where:||State Farm Center, Champaign, IL|
|TV:||Big Ten Network|
|KenPom Rank:||Michigan State - 21; Illinois - 58|
|KenPom Line:||Michigan State -1|
We're on the cusp of the greatest time of the year. It's the time when terms such as 'blind resumes', 'bubble teams' and 'non-conference strength of schedule' start to come full circle. Two teams that will more than likely find themselves on the right side of Selection Sunday will square off in Champaign to boost their tournament resumes.
The visiting Spartans are playing with a great sense of urgency since their last loss, ironically enough coming to the Illini back on Feb. 7. Since then, Michigan State has pulled off three straight wins including one of those resume boosting wins sought after around this time against Ohio State last weekend.
As for the Illini, who come into Sunday as winners in four of their last five games, this was a team that was at the center of some tumultuous times around the program. How would the team welcome back senior guard Rayvonte Rice after suspension, and would he be able to accept a lesser role since the Illini were starting to figure things out? Rice may not be starting, but he's averaged 7.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 28.5 minutes per game since his return.
This will be a good one featuring two teams starting to find an identity at the right time of the year.
Two Weeks Ago
If I could declare myself the 'Wisconsin basketball whisperer', then I would. Even though they had quite possibly their most hideous performance at Penn State on Wednesday, this is still one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in the country. There was no way Indiana stood a chance with the defensive efforts, or lack there of, that they play against the most efficient offensive team in the country.
Tale Of The Tape
Michigan State (18-8, 9-4 Big Ten)
This usually isn't the time when we see senior demotions on teams that are playing for tournament seeding. Don't tell Tom Izzo that. Freshman guard Lourawls Nairn Jr. has been plugged into the starting lineup in the three game winning streak for the Spartans replacing senior guard Travis Trice. In the last two games, Trice averaged 19.0 points and 4.0 assists per game while shooting just under 50 percent as well.
Player to watch: Senior F Branden Dawson (12.4 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 2.0 apg)
Dawson is just another reason to love watching college basketball. I say because this is a guy whose points, rebounds, assists and blocks per game numbers have increased every year since he was a freshman. He's the most creative and talented offensive rebounder in the country, but his scoring has started to resurface again. Dawson has scored at least his season average in four of the last five games and will need to provide the same explosiveness in a hostile environment.
Illinois (17-9, 7-6 Big Ten)
This game is without a doubt needed more for the Illini than Sparty. The remaining Illinois schedule consists of road games at Iowa and Purdue and home games against Northwestern and Nebraska. If the Illini win on Sunday, it makes the rest of the season a little less stressful. But a loss would ultimately mean Illinois would have to win out and potentially win a game in the Big Ten tournament to keep their tournament dreams alive. Oh, how I love the speculation.
Player to watch: Freshman G Jaylon Tate (3.9 ppg, 3.3 apg, 1.3 rpg)
I know Tate doesn't shoot the ball a lot because of all the weapons around him, but I think this is a game where he has to be a threat to knock down and make shots. Nairn Jr. will not be focusing all of his attention on Tate's shooting because, as aforementioned, he's a pass first guard and likes to drive if anything. If Tate can hit a couple early shots, it will take a lot of pressure off sophomores Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn and hold the Spartans defense from thinking about double team situations and traps in the corners. Put the pressure on the youngster to play against Tate as long as Trice is on the bench.
PREDICTION: Illinois 75, Michigan State 73
Illinois last played on Sunday at Wisconsin. After licking their wounds and regrouping while Michigan State had to go through a tough rivalry atmosphere on Tuesday, the rest will play a factor come this time of the year. The Spartans have a tough rest of their schedule and this is usually a game a Tom Izzo coached team wins, but urgency plays such a big role in games this time of the year. Look for freshman Leron Black to play a lot of minutes and hold a bigger body on Dawson to keep him off the glass.
Other Big Ten games to watch this weekend:
Saturday, Feb 21
- Penn State at Northwestern (B1G Tournament implications)
Sunday, Feb 22
- 24) Ohio State at Michigan
- Iowa at Nebraska
- Indiana at Rutgers