A week removed from the disappointing loss in Ann Arbor, the Spartans return to the Breslin Center to square off against Illinois today at 4 pm ET. Today’s game also marks the return of junior forward Branden Dawson who has been sidelined for the last nine games after suffering a broken hand January 23rd. The last time these two teams matched up the Spartans rolled to a 78-62 victory in Champaign.
Meet The Illini
Winners of their last two contests, Illinois (16-12, 5-10) comes to East Lansing with a little bit of momentum in what has otherwise been a disappointing season. They are led by 6-4 junior guard Rayvonte Rice, who is in his first season in Champaign after transferring from Drake. Rice is averaging 16 points per game as well as 6 rebounds and 1.6 assists. After Rice the Illini look to fellow junior guard Tracy Abrams for offense. Abrams is averaging 11 points per game and 3.2 assists per game. If the Illini are going to be able to keep up with the Spartans look for Rice and Abrams to lead the way for a team that struggles to score. Experience is something Illinois has plenty of as they start two seniors and three juniors. Given the experience they have, Illinois will not be intimidated by the atmosphere of the Breslin Center. Whether or not they will be able to hang with Michigan State is another story however.
Welcome Back, Branden
As I previously mentioned, Saturday marks the anticipated return of Branden Dawson. Before Dawson went out with the hand injury the Spartans had yet to be defeated in conference play. Over the nine games he missed, MSU is 4-5. The Gary, Indiana product was having a very strong season before the injury averaging 10.2 points per game and 8.7 rebounds per game. But the biggest thing the junior forward brings to the table is a toughness and edge that the Spartans are in desperate need of. As far as how much he is going to play, Tom Izzo couldn’t give a definite answer. Izzo said about Dawson “Like Morris Peterson, he’ll have to defend and rebound in order to play.” Luckily for Dawson, those things are two of his strengths.
Appling, Harris Look to Find Their Rhythm
Although Gary Harris scored a team high 21 points in last sunday’s game vs Michigan, it took him 17 shots to do so. Tom Izzo’s team will need Harris to be more efficient in today’s game and going forward. Although a good shooter from deep, Harris shot 13 3′s in Ann Arbor last weekend. Look for him to try to get to the basket a little more in this game and if he can convert around the rim it could help him find his stroke from beyond the arc. Keith Appling has been a shell of himself since returning from a wrist injury that sidelined him for three games in the month of February. Appling is the guy that makes this team click and the Spartans need him to get back into the rhythm he was in earlier this season. The most important factor for that is his wrist being fully healthy again, which he and Izzo both say continues to improve.
What it Comes Down To
Michigan State is clearly the superior team in this matchup. Combine the obvious leg up on talent with them playing at home the Spartans should be able to win this one. However to ensure victory MSU must not let Rice get going early. Like any good scorer, when Rice can get a few easy baskets early it could spell danger for the rest of the game. It is key that the Spartans make him earn every touch and every basket in today’s game. As for the offensive side of the ball, the Spartans will be looking for their usual suspects to get it done. With question marks about Appling’s and Dawson’s health still, Harris and big man Adreian Payne will have to do the heavy lifting on offense. With only three conference games left before postseason play begins, the Spartans need to win out to have a chance to win the big ten most likely. My prediction for this game is MSU over Illinois 72-59.