Michigan State took off early and ran away from a severely undermanned Illini team to win this game by 25 points. With the win the Spartans move to 2-1 in the league and look to have survived the Denzel Valentine injury taking just one loss in his absence.

Reviewing the 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.

RESULT – WIth Kendrick Nunn sitting out for the birth of his child, the Illini really took a hit in terms of their perimeter attack. For the game, they shot just 2-15 from deep, which has to be their worst performance of the season. Finke and Alex Austin each hit one triple and that was it. Coleman-Lands, who has shot well as a freshman, was 0-4 on the night. I did think MSU was pretty responsible in the way they located and closed on shooters though, and was especially impressed with the way some of the posts (Gav most notably) really hung with Finke and limited his looks…that’s a tough, challenging thing for a 4 man to do and MSU’s guys fared pretty well I thought.

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.

RESULT – Finally we saw MSU control the defensive glass, as they gave up just 5 offensive boards in this game. Matt Costello was the leader with 9 defensive boards and 14 overall, but it was a team effort.

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.

RESULT – Much, much better than we’ve seen lately. MSU had 26 assists on 33 made shots, which puts them back into the realm they’d been living in with a healthy Valentine. Yes, some of it was going against a poor defensive opponent but MSU also simply moved and moved the ball much better than they had been. It’s no accident that they shot 53/40 for the game (and were much higher than that until late).

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.

RESULT – Really nice work. The three guys I mentioned above were a combined 13-20 from the floor and had 27 points collectively. Had Costello not suddently been unable to finish around the rim late, the numbers would have been even better. This was an area where MSU had a distinct advantage and I thought they worked it well.

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.

RESULT – MSU played with energy, enthusiasm and toughness. In their last two trips here, Illinois beat MSU in those areas but that wasn’t in the cards tonight.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

THE GOOD:

1. Ball Movement – Wonderful to see it back at a high level. MSU did a great job of keeping guys moving and the ball followed suit, and what resulted were a lot of great looks, all game long. Against a good defensive team, MSU’s movement creates good shots. Against a bad defensive unit, it creates spectacular ones and that’s mostly what we saw tonight.

2. Defensive rebounding – Yeah, Illinois is a smallish team right now which doesn’t board well, but MSU has struggled against opponents with roughly similar profiles lately (see the Minnesota game as an example). So, credit must be given for the Spartans completely shutting the Illini down on the glass. Matt Costello continues to do tremendous work on the glass

3. Aggressiveness – MSU didn’t wear out a path to the free throw line but I thought we saw some of the most sustained aggressive offensive play we’ve had all year. Forbes, Harris, McQuaid, Tum…even Bess to a degree showed a willingness to get to the rim or at least into the paint and make plays. I thought the way McQuaid played was particularly noteworthy…his lack of aggression lately has been noted here but that was not a problem tonight. He looked to score and he was also showing that excellent court vision he has in finding others for easy baskets (he had 5 assists to go with his 10 points).

4. Defense – Look, this was a really poor opponent MSU faced tonight. When they lost Nunn, this thing was over…they just don’t have any real weapon outside of Hill and it showed. That said, I don’t care who you’re playing, holding an opponent under 30% from the floor and a good three point shooting group to 13% from outside the arc is notable.

THE BAD AND THE UGLY

1. FT Against – Believe me, I’m struggling to find something for this area. I guess against this opponent, with who they had on the floor, you’d like to do a little better than giving them 21 FTA. That’s particularly true when you only commit 17 fouls as a team…when MSU was fouling, it was often in the act of shooting. This is not a major deal, though, believe me.

MSU will travel to face Penn State this weekend and that game should mark the return of Zel to the Spartan lineup. If he’s back in reasonably good form in that game, I think it would be safe to conclude that MSU weathered this period in an acceptable fashion and began to find some things (post offense, more confidence from Eron Harris) which could provide a boost down the line with their best player back in the mix.