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1/25 Big Ten Preview: Michigan State at Illinois

Preview Tuesday’s Big Ten action.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Maryland vs Michigan Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s take a look at the games.

Game of the Day:

-No. 10 Michigan State Spartans (15-3, 6-1) at No. 24 Illinois Fighting Illini (13-5, 6-2)

  • Time/TV: 7:00 PM EST (ESPN)
  • ESPN Pick Center: Illinois -5.5

Tonight’s marquee matchup looks to be one of the most pivotal in the Big Ten race this season with Michigan State heading to Champaign to take on Illinois. Both teams sit near the top of the league standings, with the Fighting Illini holding an opportune moment to knock the Spartans off the top spot to create a three way tie between the two and Wisconsin. An Illini win would also snap a two-game losing streak dating back to a double-overtime loss to Purdue at home.

The biggest question in this one is whether Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn will be able to play after he has been out due to concussion protocols. Cockburn fundamentally changes the game for both teams with his size down low on defense and scoring ability on offense. Having him on the court also better frees up Illinois’s wings to score from outside. With him out, the Illini dropped a rough road loss at Maryland last week which sent them tumbling to No. 24 in this week’s AP poll.

As for Michigan State, the Spartans are coming off one of the biggest road wins by the program since downing No. 8 Maryland in Feb. 2020. That win left MSU alone atop the league standings, but with a tough stretch of games ahead including tonight’s. Last year between these two teams saw Michigan State upset then No. 2 Illinois in East Lansing in a physical game. Ayo Dosunmu suffered a broken nose in fact during that game, and many of his teammates likely remember and hold a grudge heading into this matchup.

As for the teams strengths, Illinois ranks No. 3 in scoring offense with 79.3 ppg compared to Michigan State at No. 5 with 75.3 ppg. The Spartans are giving up just 66.1 ppg, however, good for No. 4 in the conference compared to Illinois’s 66.9 ppg, good for No. 8. The teams also sit close together in scoring margin, Illinois at No. 3 with a 12.4 ppg advantage over opponents compared to MSU’s 9.2 ppg average, good for No. 5 in the Big Ten.

If Cockburn is back, this should make a tall task for the Michigan State squad. However, if he is out then the Spartans should have more than enough horsepower on offense and defensive stopping power against the Illini to leave with a second straight road win over a ranked opponent.

  • Pick: Illinois (Michigan State if Cockburn is out)

The Rest:

-Maryland Terrapins (10-9, 2-6) at Rutgers Scarlet Knights (11-7, 5-3)

  • Time/TV: 8:00 PM EST (Big Ten Network)
  • ESPN Pick Center: Rutgers -3.5

The two East Coast “newbies” to the Big Ten face off tonight in Piscataway after Rutgers won 7-59 in College Park just 10 days ago. Ron Harper Jr. almost single-handedly powered the Scarlet Knights to victory with 13 points while Maryland wilted against the RU defense, shooting just 33.3 percent from the floor and 24 percent from three-point range.

While the Terps are coming off a home win over Illinois that likely gives the team a confidence boost and the Scarlet Knights suffered a tough road loss at Minnesota, UMD has been anything but consistent this season on the court. Meanwhile, Jersey Mike’s Arena has been one of the toughest venues to play in this season. The spread on this one feels unfair towards Rutgers performance this season and it likely ends closer to a double digit victory for the home squad again.

  • Pick: Rutgers