With the number of games dwindling and March growing ever closer, the middle of the Big Ten is as muddled as ever.
Michigan State (15-11, 7-7) earned a huge 61-57 victory over Illinois (17-10, 7-7) at the Breslin Center Saturday night to force a three-way tie for fourth in the conference between the two teams and Penn State. Michigan is a half game off the pace at 7-8 in Big Ten play.
The Spartans got perhaps the Big Ten's clutch performance of the season from senior Kalin Lucas who scored a game high 25 points, grabbed three rebounds and dished two assists. Banged up Delvon Roe contributed eight points and seven rebounds while an ill Draymond Green came off the bench for five points and six boards.
The Illini had three double figure scorers on the evening as Demetri McCamey netted 15 points, Mike Davis scored 14 points and Brandon Paul added 12 points off the bench, but poor shooting down the stretch led to a 37% shooting performance for the game, dropping Illinois from sole possession of fourth into a mess for the spot and squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble with tough games remaining against No. 3 Ohio State and No. 11 Purdue the rest of the way.
Michigan State dominated the glass, earning a 37-25 overall rebounding edge on the evening. The Spartans were also roughly 5% better shooting from the field at 42%, despite hitting on only 3-15 3-point attempts on the evening. And then there's Kalin Lucas. With his team reeling and needing a hero, he stepped up in a huge way. The senior scored 11 straight points for Sparty at one point and truly willed his team to victory.
The win solidifies Michigan State's spot in the NCAA Tournament with the games dwindling. ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi currently has the Spartans among the "Last Four In" but that figures to improve with the win. Of the three teams tied for fourth, Michigan State has the easiest remaining schedule with only one ranked opponent left to face in the final four games.
Illinois remains in decent position, however, the loss positions the Illini precariously as they head down the stretch. The possibility of finishing 9-9 in conference is now very real, and a win in the Big Ten tournament will be vital if that's where the Illini finish.