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Chris Solari Detroit Free Press

Published 6:03 AM EST Feb 11, 2020

EAST LANSING — Michigan State basketball finds itself in a difficult position.

Trailing in the Big Ten standings. On a three-game losing streak. Out of the Associated Press Top 25, and down to No. 25 in the USA Today coaches poll after being ranked No. 1 in both preseason polls.

Now the Spartans will be away from home, facing another tough opponent in another tough environment. 

MSU heads to No. 23 Illinois in need of a strong start and an even stronger finish with seven games remaining in the regular season. MSU plays four of its next six away from Breslin Center.

“There's no question, the road doesn't get any easier,” coach Tom Izzo said Monday. “That's the interesting part of this league.”

Here is what to watch when MSU (16-8, 8-5 Big Ten), in a tie for fourth place with Iowa, visits the Illini (16-7, 8-4), which is tied with Penn State for second place, a half-game in front of the Spartans. Tipoff is 9 p.m. on ESPN. 

Slow again

It was another rocky beginning for MSU in Saturday’s 77-68 loss at Michigan, a common theme on the road this season.

After both teams put together a lackluster first six minutes, the Spartans – who made 2 of 13 shots at the outset – fell behind by as many as 10 points with 5:05 left in the first half and scored just 23 points before the break. Six of their seven turnovers came in the first 8:17 of play and resulted in six points for the Wolverines.

“We gotta stop doing that,” sophomore Aaron Henry said Saturday. “That was one of the comments made before the game. We’ve been fighting back into things – let’s get out to a quick start, let’s get out on the right foot and just not have to fight back.”

Senior guard Cassius Winston, who finished with 20 points, went scoreless for more than 16 minutes and had four points and one field goal at halftime. He committed three of the turnovers for the Spartans, who did not give the ball away at all in the second half and cut U-M’s lead to a single point three times.

[ Cassius Winston knows opponents' plan 'make it hard for me.' Can MSU counter? ]

MSU made 7 of 27 first-half shots and shot 33.3% for the game.

“We didn’t make those shots that you needed,” Winston said. “When you get it to one, you gotta get a run, you gotta put some shots together. I feel like we didn’t knock those shots down, we didn’t get any looks like that, and they came down and hit big shots.”

Other contributions

Winston did get help from fellow starters Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry, who combined for 27 points and 21 rebounds to keep MSU in the game. Those three combined to make 14 of 29 shots, though Winston was 5 of 18. But the rest of the team struggled to produce, going 7 for 34.

Izzo said he has demanded more from that Big Three right now, particularly as the freshmen and other sophomores continue to navigate the process of becoming consistent contributors heading into March.

“The beauty of my sport is if you keep getting better in the end, maybe some good things will happen to you,” Izzo said. “And we got a lot of work to do.”

Izzo said sophomore forward Thomas Kithier, who was sick and did not travel to Ann Arbor, is expected to play in Champaign.

Illinois update

Since MSU’s impressive 76-56 win over Illinois on Jan. 2 at Breslin, the Illini have recovered to win seven in a row, before suffering back-to-back losses at Iowa on Feb. 2 and at home to league-leading Maryland on Friday.

“So, just like the rest of the conference,” Izzo said. “Like I told you early, it's gonna come down to who you play, when you play them, where you play them, how many road games you've got, how many home games you've got. I think all of the things that I said early have kind of happened.

“(The Illini) are very tough at home, and yet they just got beat at home.”

Sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu, at a team-high 15.8 per game, is one of six Illinois players averaging eight or more a game. He also grabs 4.1 rebounds and averages 3.4 assists.

Freshman forward Kofi Cockburn is averaging 13.8 points and nine rebounds, nd Dosunmu’s backcourt mates Andres Feliz and Trent Frazier combine for 20.9 points and 6.9 rebounds.

Prediction

The Spartans need Winston to be at his best in a venue that has been troublesome, but it’s the big-man tandem of Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili who make it hard defensively on Tillman and the revolving cast at the other forward spot. Pick: Illinois 72, MSU 67

Contact Chris Solari at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.


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