The Illinois Fighting Illini and the Michigan State Spartans both entered Saturday's tilt as bubble teams. Illinois was looking to show the committee that they can pick up a quality road win without Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Crosby. The Spartans were looking for a win to get them off the bubble.
This game proved to be evenly matched. Both teams traded buckets back and forth. Illinois went into halftime with a narrow 28-27 lead. The 2nd half was just as tight. Neither team could gain any momentum until the Fighting Illini took a 53-49 lead with 2 minutes to play. However, Illinois let Michigan State back into the game after a dead ball technical by Jaylon Tate with just over 30 seconds left to play. Michigan State couldn't capitalize on the technical. The Illini escaped East Lansing with a 59-54 win.
What We Learned
The Fighting Illini can win on the road without Rayvonte Rice
Illinois has held their own at home since losing Rice, including a big win at home against Maryland, but they've missed him on the road. It was a different story on Saturday afternoon. Illinois is proving that they can play like a team without Rice. It will be interesting to see how they play when they eventually get him back.
Free throws can lose games
Michigan State found that out the hard way. Illinois committed 11 fouls in the 1st Half, but the Spartans couldn't make them pay. They shot a terrible 7-18 from the line. In a close game like this, a team can't afford to miss that many free throws. State couldn't take advantage of the technical foul by Illinois' Tate. They had a chance to take the lead on the line, but they couldn't. Illinois, on the other hand, hit their free throws late in the game to close it out. That was the difference in this one.
Malcolm Hill can be the primary scorer
Hill has played great since the loss of Rice. He has taken it upon himself to be the primary scoring option for the Illini. Saturday afternoon was no different. He finished with 19 points and 6 boards. He also made 2 clutch free throws at the end of the game to finish off the Spartans. The sophomore is showing us he has a bright future in front of him. It will be interesting to see if he can keep his recent success going when Rice eventually comes back into the lineup. If Rice and Hill can find a way to share the ball, the Fighting Illini will be a tough team to beat.
The Spartans Need More Consistent Scoring
Somebody else besides Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson need to score for Michigan State to be successful. Dawson and Valentine are great players, but they can't carry the offensive load on their own. They combined for 22 of State's 27 points in the 2nd Half. Michigan State needs to get consistent scoring from all of their starters if they plan on going anywhere in the Big Ten Tournament. Travis Trice and Bryn Forbes combined for 14 points on 4-17 shooting. That's not what Michigan State is looking for from the rest of the lineup.
Illinois can play defense
The Illini came into the game with the 108th ranked defense in the nation, but you wouldn't have known that watching this game. Illinois' defense was too much for the Spartans to handle on Saturday afternoon. They held State to 39% shooting. The defense was anchored by Nnanna Egwu. He held his own against the bigger Spartan front court. The combination of good defense and offense from Hill and potentially Rice could make the Fighting Illini a very dangerous team in the Big Ten Tournament.
This was a great win for Illinois. They are currently a bubble team, but this win helps them out immensely. They showed the committee on Saturday afternoon that they can win in a hostile environment without arguably their best player.
This loss won't derail Michigan State's season. This is a game they could've won, but it's one they should easily move on from. However, the Spartans have shown they can finish off Big Ten play strong in the past, don't be surprised if they do it again this season.