GAME NOTES: A couple of Big Ten Conference teams aiming to regain their balance meet at Assembly Hall in Champaign tonight, as the 17th-ranked Michigan State Spartans clash with the 23rd-ranked Fighting Illini of Illinois.
Last week, the Illini were ranked 16th in the country and were already 3-0 in conference play, but that was before they hit the road for a couple of Big Ten battles. On Tuesday night, the team was taken down by a spunky Penn State group in Happy Valley, 57-55, then over the weekend the 20th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers turned the trick as well with a 76-66 victory on their home floor, which means Illinois has now dropped four of its last seven outings.
As for the Spartans, while they didn't land in the loss column last weekend, that doesn't mean they didn't struggle. In fact, with both wins over Wisconsin (64-61) and Northwestern (71-67), Michigan State had to fight into overtime in order to survive. The squad is now 4-1 in conference as a result and is tied with Purdue for second place in the Big Ten standings behind undefeated Ohio State.
The all-time series between these two teams is deadlocked at 54-54. The Illini have held a considerable advantage at home since the series began back in 1951, sporting a 35-17 record in their own building and last year in Champaign the squad registered a 78-73 win over MSU to snap a five-game slide in the series.
After falling behind by three points in overtime, the Spartans put together a 9-2 run to close out the meeting with Northwestern at home and capture the victory. Keith Appling converted 5-of-8 shots behind the three-point line for the hosts, finishing with a team-best 19 points. Kalin Lucas tacked on 18 points as he made good on all six of his free-throw attempts, while Draymond Green also was perfect at the charity stripe (10-of-10) as he tallied 16 points, to go along with a team-high eight rebounds before fouling out. Lucas, a 41.5 percent shooter behind the three-point line these days, is at the top of the scoring list for the Spartans right now with his 14.7 ppg. In addition to helping himself out, Lucas is also one of the primary passers for MSU with 62 assists, ranking him third behind Green (66) and Korie Lucious (65). Durrell Summers (14.2 ppg) and Green (12.8 ppg) assume major roles on offense for a team that is producing 73.1 ppg.
Illinois came up with a respectable 66 points against Wisconsin on the road on Saturday, but that's only because the visitors hit the free-throw line 36 times and knocked down all but six opportunities before falling in the double- digit decision. From the field the Illini were simply dismal, shooting a mere 16-of-53 (.302) and also connecting on just 4-of-16 shots behind the three- point line. Demetri McCamey tallied a team-best 23 points, but only because he was able to make good on 17-of-21 at the charity stripe. Brandon Paul added 15 points off the bench as he made 6-of-7 at the line as well. McCamey is clearly the main priority at the offensive end of the floor for Illinois with his 16.2 ppg, generating a great portion of those points behind the three-point line where he has made good on 52.6 percent of his attempts thus far. As a team, the Illini have knocked down an impressive 42.5 percent out on the perimeter over the course of 18 games, and when it comes to league affairs that level of accuracy jumps to 51.3 percent, even after taking into consideration the awful exhibition against Wisconsin.
Both of these teams are desperate to fight off their recent falls from grace, but this meeting will probably be influenced by the hometown crowd which is anxious to see the Illini rebound after a couple of tough outings.
FACTS & STATS: Site: Assembly Hall (16,618) -- Champaign, Illinois. Television: ESPN. Home Record: MSU 8-1, Illinois 9-0. Away Record: MSU 1-2, Illinois 2-2. Neutral Record: MSU 3-2, Illinois 2-3. Conference Record: MSU 4-1, Illinois 3-2. Series Record: Series is tied, 54-54.
TSN PREDICTION: Illinois 67, Michigan State 63