Tom Izzo's team could be short-handed however as freshman guard Travis Trice is dealing with a groin injury and was deemed questionable on Monday. Not having him would limit the Spartans' backcourt depth but the progression of guards Keith Appling and Brandon Wood have played a major role in Michigan State's growth as a team. Appling (12.3 ppg, 4.0 apg) has done a better job of taking care of the basketball while also being the team's second-leading scorer, and Wood (9.2 ppg, 2.3 apg) has improved as well.
Illinois' perimeter rotation is in for a challenge, especially juniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. Paul (14.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg) leads the team in scoring and does have that scintillating 43-point performance against Ohio State to his credit, but the efficiency numbers tend to show that him firing away at will is a bad thing for the Illini more times than not. Richardson's been inconsistent of late as he's reached double figures in just two of Illinois' last six games (33.3% FG in those games). That can't happen against a Michigan State defense that's allowing opponents to shoot 38% from the field, a number that ranks second in the Big Ten.
Also of note for Illinois are senior point guard Sam Maniscalco and freshman Joseph Bertrand, with Maniscalco recently returning from an ankle injury (still not 100%) and Bertrand averaging 8.8 points per game since his 25-point outing against Nebraska on January 7th. The play in the paint will be just as important, with Michigan State being led by one of the frontrunners for Big Ten Player of the Year and Illinois calling on a seven-footer who's likely the league's most improved player. Draymond Green (15.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 3.7 apg) does just about everything for the Spartans, and his comfort both inside and out makes him a very tough matchup.
Meyers Leonard (13.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.0 bpg) has stepped up for Bruce Weber's team, giving them a more consistent option inside than their two departed seniors did last season. But he's got to become more assertive on the offensive end of the floor, as this could end up helping the Illini avoid some of the bad perimeter shots they take. Michigan State's deeper inside as they can call on Adriean Payne, Derrick Nix and Branden Dawson, and it isn't out of the realm of possibility that multiple players are given the responsibility of guarding Leonard.
Those big men for Michigan State are one reason why they're so good on the glass, out-rebounding their opponents by 9.5 rebounds per game and boasting an offensive rebounding percentage of 38.8%. Illinois has done a good job of taking care of their defensive glass and they'll need to continue that in front of the home folks if they're to win. But shot selection, especially for Paul and Appling, will go a long way in determining the outcome as well.
Also of note is Seton Hall's trip to Milwaukee, where the slumping Pirates will look to boost their profile and pick up a much-needed win against #18 Marquette. There weren't many people outside of the Marquette fan base who thought that Buzz Williams' team would be 7-2 at the halfway point in the Big East, especially with the loss of center Chris Otule, but the Golden Eagles have stepped up.
Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder have been the two biggest reasons but the play of forward Davante Gardner has been just as important. Seton Hall needs seniors Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope to get back to playing as they did earlier this month, and their NCAA hopes could hinge on how quickly that turnaround occurs.
Kansas State's trip to Ames has become a little more important for the Wildcats due to their loss to Oklahoma over the weekend, and while Iowa State is coming off of a win over Kansas Fred Hoiberg's team can use all the quality wins they can get. Royce White has been one of the best players in the Big 12 this season, and slowing him down will be a tough task for a K-State team whose front court players outside of Jamar Samuels are far more comfortable in the paint.
Can Will Spradling and Rodney McGruder perform well enough to push Kansas State to a win on the road? Clemson, who will be without Milton Jennings due to suspension (unresolved academic issue), visits Virginia and Vanderbilt visits Arkansas in two other intriguing match ups. And in the nightcap New Mexico had better be careful at Air Force as the Falcons nearly knocked off UNLV in overtime on Saturday.
Top 25 Games
7:00 PM Tennessee at (1) Kentucky (ESPNU)
9:00 PM (6) North Carolina at Wake Forest (ESPNU)
7:00 PM (10) Michigan State at Illinois (ESPN)
8:00 PM Seton Hall at (15) Marquette (ESPN3)
7:00 PM Clemson at (18) Virginia (ESPN2)
8:00 PM (20) Wisconsin at Penn State (BTN)
NCAA Division I Games
7:00 PM Trinity Baptist at Savannah State
7:07 PM Kent State at Central Michigan (ESPN3)
8:00 PM Youngstown State at Milwaukee
8:00 PM Southern Illinois at Northern Iowa (ESPN3)
8:00 PM Oklahoma State at Texas Tech (ESPN3)
9:00 PM Vanderbilt at Arkansas (ESPN)
9:00 PM Kansas State at Iowa State (ESPN3)
10:00 PM New Mexico at Air Force (The Mtn.)