The Michigan State Spartans are clinging to slim NCAA Tournament hopes as they host the no. 5 Illinois Fighting Illini on Tuesday night. On the road, Illinois is a seven-point favorite with the over/under for the game set at 145 points. Tipoff set for 7 p.m. EST.
Tom Izzo’s team has a little positive momentum after beating Indiana over the weekend. The Spartans have now won three of their last five games, although they are still 5-9 in conference play and 11-9 overall. The silver lining is that Michigan State’s remaining schedule provides many opportunities to get quality wins. However, they must seize all of those opportunities, starting with Tuesday’s game against Illinois.
Speaking of the Illini, they are just half a game behind Michigan for the Big Ten’s top spot. Since suffering back-to-back losses in mid-January, Illinois has rattled off seven straight wins, most recently a 31-point win over Minnesota. Of course, since Michigan has lost just once this season, the Fighting Illini don’t have much margin for error if they hope to stay within striking distance for the Big Ten regular-season crown.
Mr. Triple Double
Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu isn’t going to win Big Ten Player of the Year because of Iowa’s Luka Garza. But he’s certainly staking a claim for the second-best player in the conference. Dosunmu recorded a triple-double over the weekend against Minnesota, his second triple-double in his last four games. He’s a three-level scorer who shoots 42% from three-point range, leads the team in assists, and is the team’s second-best rebounder. In short, he impacts the game in multiple ways, perhaps better than any other player in the country.
Of course, Dosunmu has a great running mate in center Kofi Cockburn. The 7-footer averages a double-double at 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, giving the Fighting Illini a great inside-outside combination. Illinois also has two dangerous shooters on the perimeter in Trent Frazier and Adam Miller. They can make teams pay for double-teaming Cockburn in the post or paying too much attention to Dosunmu.
The 2-H Club
Depth has been one of Michigan State’s biggest problems this season, forcing them to be overly reliant on Aaron Henry and Joey Hauser. Henry passed on the NBA last year and is having a strong junior season, averaging 15 points per game while also leading MSU in assists, steals, and blocks. He does it all for the Spartans, and at times, is asked to do too much.
Hauser, a transfer from Marquette, has helped Michigan State’s cause, averaging a little over 10 points per game. However, he’s been held to single digits in eight of his last 12 games. Fellow upperclassmen Joshua Langford and Gabe Brown have also been frustratingly inconsistent in their contributions this season, although Langford is starting to come on strong. Michigan State also lacks strong point guard play, so Henry is the leading scorer and assists man.
Not Desperate Enough
The Spartans are in desperation mode, but motivation won’t be enough in this game. Michigan State doesn’t have a defensive answer for Cockburn, while Dosunmu will likely cancel out Henry’s contributions. Illinois has far more depth and scoring options than Michigan State, which means the smart bet is taking the Illini to win and cover.