Illinois hits road to challenge No. 18 Michigan State

East Lansing, MI ( - The 18th-ranked Michigan State Spartans hope to keep pace in the race for the Big Ten Conference title, as they entertain the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday afternoon.

Illinois had been rock-solid through the first two months of the season, but an eight-game losing streak from Jan. 8-Feb. 4 cost the team a shot at competing in the Big Ten. The Illini, who sit at 16-12 overall and 5-10 in conference, have played better recently, posting wins in their last two games, the most recent of which being a 60-49 decision over visiting Nebraska on Wednesday night.

Michigan State had been considered one of the top teams in the nation, actually holding down the No. 1 spot prior to the start of conference play, but Tom Izzo's club has alternated losses and wins over its last nine games to come back down to Earth. The Spartans dropped a 79-70 decision at bitter rival Michigan last Sunday to fall to 22-6 overall and 11-4 in the Big Ten. They currently sit a game behind the first-place Wolverines with only three games remaining, including this one, in the regular season.

Michigan State beat Illinois in Champaign earlier this season, 78-62, to take a 57-56 lead in the all-time series. The Spartans have won eight of the last 11 meetings.

Illinois is simultaneously one of the Big Ten's worst offensive teams and one of its top defensive squads. The Illini, who lay claim to only two double- digit scorers in guards Rayvonte Rice (16.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Tracy Abrams (10.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.2 apg), are netting just 65.5 ppg behind typical shooting efforts of .405 overall and .318 from 3-point range. When they have their backs to the basket, they yield only 62.6 ppg, with foes hitting just 41.5 percent of their total shots and 32.7 percent of their long-range launches.

Illinois has played stellar defense recently, holding each of its last three opponents under 50 points. The offense hasn't been explosive, particularly when it accounted for a mere 39 points in a loss to Ohio State on Feb. 15, but the team has done just enough to earn a couple of wins over the last week and change. For the second straight game, Kendrick Nunn was high man for the Illini, as he tallied 13 points thanks to a 3-of-4 showing from beyond the arc in the recent win over Nebraska. Rice and Malcolm Hill both chipped in 10 points for UI, which shot only 37.3 percent from the field, but drained nine treys while logging a 13-6 edge in points from the foul line. The Cornhuskers managed just a 3-of-13 effort from distance, and they were guilty of 15 turnovers from which Illinois scored 24 points.

Michigan State is a much more potent offensive squad, ranking second in the Big Ten with an average in excess of 77 ppg. The team's defensive performance falls in line with several of the league's middling squads, as it permits 65.8 ppg. MSU does however, lead the league in field goal percentage defense (.395), while at the other end pacing the conference in assists (17.3 apg) while sitting second in both field goal percentage (.472) and 3-point field goal percentage (.388). Gary Harris currently ranks second in the league in scoring with his 17.9 ppg, while guys like Adreian Payne (16.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and Keith Appling (13.6 ppg, 4.8 apg) offer up considerable support.

Harris scored 21 points and handed out four assists, but that effort went for naught as Michigan State fell to rival Michigan the last time out. Denzel Valentine added 13 points, eight rebounds and six helpers, while Payne logged a double-double consisting of 12 points and 11 boards in defeat. As a team, the Spartans knocked down 54.2 percent of their total shots, including nine treys, but the Wolverines shot 50 percent from the floor, which encompassed an 8-of-19 effort from downtown. Michigan finished with a 17-9 edge in points from the charity stripe, and it also committed only three turnovers, compared to 13 for MSU.