Well, Max Mahoney wasn’t enough to help us to a win on the huge Patriot League tilt between Colgate and BU, so we’ll wipe the slate clean and begin anew on Tuesday with a spotlight college basketball preview. It is a small card, but we have a ton of options for tonight. Because we talked about Rhode Island vs. Dayton and Penn State vs. Purdue on yesterday’s edition of BangTheBook Radio with Kyle Hunter, we’ll point you in the direction of that rather than write about those games.
We will, however, focus on the Big Ten and look at the huge matchup in Champaign between Michigan State and Illinois. I like to try and look under-the-radar as often as I can, but it is hard to ignore a game like this. There are a lot of under-the-radar games in this week’s college basketball situational spots article that you can use to whet your whistle.
Anyway, Michigan State has fallen out of the top 25, which is a reminder that human polls are dumb. Michigan State ranks 10th over at Ken Pomeroy’s website and eighth at Bart Torvik’s. There are less than a dozen teams that would be favored on a neutral against Michigan State, but they are apparently not worthy of a top-25 spot because they have eight losses.
Need more proof? Michigan State is a ROAD FAVORITE against a ranked Illinois squad tonight. BetOnline has the line at -2 after a -1.5 opener. The total on the game sits at 141.5. I guess Illinois’s losses at Iowa and at home against Maryland weren’t considered bad enough for the pollsters to take the Illini out of the top 25. Polls are stupid. Keep that in mind.
All of those useless accolades aside, this is a huge game for both teams. Michigan State would lose a fourth straight game with a defeat tonight. Illinois would lose a third straight. The bleeding must be stopped. Seeding in the Big Ten Conference Tournament is going to be a mess anyway and there are expected to be at least 10 teams from the conference in the NCAA Tournament, but what happens here in February can certainly have a big impact on the minds of the Selection Committee members.
What has been the problem for Michigan State? Well, where do we begin? The Spartans aren’t forcing enough turnovers. In their three most recent losses, Michigan State has a TO% on defense of 14.7, 12.9, and 14.2. That won’t cut it, particularly with the offense only shooting 44.5% from two-point range in that span. Those losses against Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan have featured a lot of the same hallmarks that we have seen from struggling Sparty in conference play. They are playing good enough defense everywhere except for the TO% department and they just aren’t paying enough attention to the details on offense.
Michigan State doesn’t turn the basketball over a lot, but doesn’t get a ton of second-chance opportunities and rarely gets to the free throw line. Cassius Winston and his teammates are making it so much tougher on themselves and the limited margin for error in the Big Ten makes it hurt.
Illinois has two glaring problems from the last two games. Their opponents, Iowa and Maryland, each hit 10 three-pointers. Prior to those two games, Illinois had not allowed more than eight made threes in conference play. It isn’t that simple, as the Illini offense has disappeared, too, but a lack of defense on the perimeter has been a big problem. Only Arizona and Miami (FL) have posted a higher eFG% than Illinois’s last two opponents. In other words, Brad Underwood’s team needs to get back to playing defense and get back to not leaving open shooters.
This is the type of game in which the details really matter. Illinois is a terrific offensive rebounding team, but Michigan State is a pretty good defensive rebounding team. Sparty has fallen off a bit in terms of offensive rebounding in conference play. Will Illinois pick up some extra possessions in this one? Michigan State’s 18.5% TO% in conference play ranks 12th and they are the second-worst team in terms of forcing turnovers.
Fortunately for the visitors, the team below them in the TO% department on defense is Illinois. As far as adjusted defensive efficiency goes, Michigan State is first in conference play and Illinois is second.
Illinois ranks 14th in eFG% offense in conference play at 45.2% and that is a lot for me to overlook here. They are only shooting 29.2% from 3 and 45.8% from 2. They are also eighth in FT%, while Michigan State is first.
If Sparty was playing better, this would be an early one for me. Illinois has the second-best assist rate against in conference play, but Michigan State is the top team in the conference when it comes to sharing the basketball.
The areas in which Illinois struggles, Michigan State also does, but Sparty is fairly well-equipped to take advantage of Illinois’s struggles. Better equipped than Illinois anyway.
That is why I’ll take the road favorite here. Michigan State won the first meeting by 20 and I don’t think that was by accident. Illinois is a low-efficiency offense in terms of shooting percentages and Michigan State is the best defensive team in this conference. There are some 1.5s out there in the market, so try to seek those out, but with BetOnline cited in the intro, we’ll go with the -2 that they have posted.
Pick: Michigan State -2