CHAMPAIGN — With Illinois losing two in a row and Michigan State losing three in a row, tonight’s game could be a fight for survival.
I think you will see an heavyweight slugfest,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. “It brings a team at the beginning of the year was picked to be the best in the country. There is nothing easy in this league. Nothing surprises me when you can win six or seven in a row and if you don’t play well, you will get beat. The league is that balanced and that is why you will see 11-12 teams in the tournament.”
The Illini are coming off a 75-66 loss to Maryland on Friday, a game where Underwood said the pacing was off.
Maryland was really good and played exceptionally well. I thought the pace of our offense was a big problem, our cuts became slow and the movement was slow and we didn’t play with the rhythm we usually have,” Underwood said. “It is hard to over come a 1-for-13 start in the second half. I thought our defense did well and they shot 36 percent in the second half. We just missed some shots and we have worked the last couple days to work on that.”
The Spartans have fallen out of the top 25 after losing Michigan on Saturday, but Underwood knows with players like senior guard Cassius Winston and junior forward Xavier Tillman, Michigan State is far from done.
“Everything with them starts with Cassius, he’s 1A and Tillman is 1B,” Underwood said. “Tillman is a guy who does a lot fo them. He faclitates offense, he’s an eliter passer and screener and steps out and makes a 3. Everything starts with those two.
The Spartans beat the Illini 76-56 in their first meeting on Jan. 2, but it started Illinois’ seven-game win streak than ran for the rest of January.
“We got hurt by those two (Winston and Tillman) in the first game and it was the transition game and getting lost in a couple of matchups. Going 2-for-28 from 3 magnified that, but I thought our defense did really well except for a 4-minute period where our matchups in transition got exploited. It will be a battle like every Big Ten game is and we will have to be very good.
“At that time, we were trying to make a change offensively, so it was a turning point and the kids hung in there, but it wasn’t a night where we were playing well.”
The game led to a players-only meeting that sparked the Illini’s rise to the top 25.
“Us as coaches,we guide them, but this is their team,” Underwood said. “They are friends for life,so I am a big fan of those and it was needed at that time and kudos to those guys for handling this situation.”
The veteran Spartans, which has a lot of upperclassmen with experience, brings that experience on defense.
“There is a tremendous amount of experience there and they keep everything in front of them,” Underwood said. “They are a deceptively good shotblocking team. They have 5-6 blocks a game and that is great for a team that is mostly small. Nothing is easy and that is what do on defense. They make everything with a contested hand and that is what good defensive teams do too.”
Also, for the Illini defense, it will be all eyes on Winston.
“It’s one against five,” Underwood said. “You have to make things tough with him. You will see 65-70 plays from them and you can’t make many mistakes with him.”
Underwood said the Illini have to find their rhythm shooting to get their revenge against the Spartans tonight
“I thought Trent passed two or three shots that I thought he could take,” Underwood said. “When you are in rhythm, I am the biggest supporter of the 3-pointer, but we took too many out of rhythm and it goes back to our pace, which was off a bit.”
Our levels against zone was elite. The 3-quarter press changed the game and we didn’t attack it and we were passive. We continue to work on it even knowing that they may not do that.
Also, tonight is a chance for players like Giorgi Bezhanishvili to prove himself after some big turnovers in the team’s last two games.
“I tell him to don’t be causal,” Underwood said. “The one in Iowa was Trent being open within 22 feet of him and this other one was just an outlet. He has gone his entire career without a problem, so I tell him to stay focused and don’t be casual.”
With the State Farm Center set for an Orange-Out tonight, Underwood said the fans may make the difference.
“It’s why this league is the best. We face that every time we are on the road. It’s 19,000 at Maryland, Ann Arbor, Wisconsin, so it is important that the home crowd is a bit part over everyone’s success in the league,” Underwood said. “Unfortunately we didn’t keep it going, but we are grateful for them showing up and they are a big part of what we do.”
The game starts at 8 p.m. and will be shown on ESPN. The game will also be broadcast on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1