Michigan State opens the home portion of its Big Ten slate when they receive a visit on Thursday night from the Illinois Fighting Illini. It’s been a trying season for John Groce’s club, as they’ve had to withstand injuries to three guys they likely figured on as starters in June (PG Tracy Abrams, C Mike Thorne and PF Leron Black). Of those three, Black is the only one who might return at some point this year but he got hurt in October and has only briefly played this season, and is currently out indefinitely. Those plus other relatively more minor/temporary injuries have contributed to an 8-7 start, including 0-2 in the league.

Groce would seem to be in something of a precarious position, though the drumbeats as to his job security haven’t been particularly loud just yet (the injuries might buy him a reprieve). Illinois will have a new AD at some point, and Groce is looking at a 3rd straight season without an NCAA bid. At a school like Illinois, that’s simply not acceptable. Tom Izzo is 21-14 against Illinois and 3-2 against Groce head to head.

BACKCOURT – Abrams has been out the entire year. 5th year grad transfer Khalid Lewis has been battling a case of the mumps of late, so he’s unlikely for this game. That means 6’3″ junior Jaylon Tate is your starting point guard, a role he’s not unfamiliar with. Tate is experienced and can run the offense (he has a 2.7/1 A/TO ratio) but he’s always struggled as a shooter, and this year things are no different. He hasn’t yet hit a three this season, though he is converting 44% inside the arc. Kendrick Nunn is the star of the group for sure. He battled early injuries as well but since his return has played very well as a scorer, leading the team at 18.5ppg on 47/42% shooting. Nunn is a tough cover, as he’s a guy who can shoot the ball but he’s also a very physical player who can get things done via post ups of smaller defenders. 6’5″ freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands has gotten a bigger role as the season has gone along. He’s averaging just over 9ppg and has shot well also at 41/42%. At this stage, he mostly a three point shooter with 85 of his 110 attempts from the floor coming from outside the arc, so he’s not the complete scorer a guy like Nunn is, but his deep shooting has given this team an offensive boost.

Off the bench, expect to see a pair of freshmen wings provide help. 6’5″ Aaron Jordan has actually started 4 times and is averaging 4.7ppg on 34/35% shooting. 6’4″ Alex Austin is at 1.9ppg and has really struggled with his shot (27/19%) early in his career. Both guys play around 15mpg, so they’ll definitely see some minutes.

FRONTCOURT – Malcolm Hill is a guy who isn’t known at the level he probably should be nationally, because his team has struggled throughout the season. Playing out of position as a PF out of necessity, Hill is still having a fine year. He’s second on the team in scoring at 17.9ppg, though his three point shooting has dipped to a career low 32% so far this season. He also tops currently active Illini players in rebounds (5.6per) and assists (3.7 per) as well, so he’s their Denzel Valentine in terms of the totality of the things they ask of him, and now he’s being forced to play inside. MIchael Finke is a 6’10” redshirt freshman who reminds me a little bit of former Illini big man Mike Tisdale, except I think he’s a little better athlete. Finke takes half his shots from deep and he’s good from out there, hitting 53/41% this season. What he’s not yet is physical enough or tough enough to hang on the glass or in the paint, and with Thorne and Black out, that’s what Illinois needs from him.

Junior big man Maverick Morgan is the major frontcourt reserve and he’ll see some decent minutes. He’s never quite blossomed into a guy you could count on as a solid Big Ten level starter but he’s a respectable reserve big man…he’s got some legit size and bulk and yet he can move a bit as well. He also plays within himself on offense. 6’7″ freshman DJ Williams might also get a stint or two on the floor, but he’s produced very little so far, despite being a fairly highly regarded recruit out of Chicago.

THE 5 KEYS

1. Guard The Arc – The one thing Illinois has shown during a tough season is that they have guys who can shoot the ball and keep them in games that way. They’re at 37% as a team, and everyone in the starting lineup except Tate is a legitimate threat outside the arc. This is another team which hasn’t done a ton of FT shooting this season, which suggests that MSU may be able to concentrate on taking away 3s and hoping that they don’t pay via Illinois’ guards penetrating with regularity. I think Illinois’ chances at springing the upset do hinge in part on them having an effective day from deep.

2. Defensive Glass – Illinois is another bad rebounding team…with Thorne and Black out, they really lack guys who can hold space and go get the ball. They are particularly weak on the offensive boards, and MSU just has to do a better job in this area than they’ve been doing of late. Minnesota was a similarly limited rebounding team and yet they did real damage on the offensive glass…that can’t happen again.

3. Ball Movement – When you take away a player like Denzel, you lose his vision, his court sense and his dynamic play which does make strong ball movement tougher. Still, I think even considering his absence, MSU has been a bit too static. Good ball and man movement will absolutley lead to open looks against a bad defensive team in Illinois. This group is surrendering 46/39% shooting on the year…those are numbers you just don’t see in the modern era in the Big Ten.

4. Post Play – MSU got a lot of offensive production in Minneapolis. Illinois may be even weaker in the post than were the Gophers. Costello, Schilling and Davis should be able to get a lot of work done on the blocks.

5. Energy – Playing the first home game in about 3 weeks should mean the Spartans have a raucous crowd behind them. They need to feed off that energy and put Illinois under the gun early.

OVERALL – MSU has lost its last two at home versus Illinois and they were both absolute debacles. You can look at this game on paper and see that MSU absolutely should win, but that was the case in the two previous meetings as well and we saw contrary results.

I think if MSU can get off to a strong start and put the Illini behind, that will help. An enthused crowd should be something these guys can feed off of and play with an increased pace and energy, and that in turn should make it more difficult for the Illini to hang in there.