Big Ten Banter: Previewing Illinois at Michigan State
Last season, the Spartans and the Illini split the season series. Saturday marks the first of two meetings between the two this season, with both teams looking to build off wins in their last time out. (Source: Mike Carter - USA Today Sports)

Last season, the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Michigan State Spartans split the season series with each team winning on the road. The all-time series between the two schools is all knotted up at 57-all, but the Illini are hoping that they can score another road win over the Spartans for the second season in a row.

Last year, the Spartans weren’t fully healthy when they welcomed the Illini to the Breslin Center. In 2014-15, it’s a different story for Michigan State. They are fully healthy, and they are looking to keep things rolling in Big Ten play.

Before last weekend’s game, the Illini suffered another blow to an already depleted roster. Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby were both suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. For a team who was already without Tracy Abrams, the loss of these two was something the team couldn’t afford.

Over the past week, the Illini went 2 – 0, scoring wins over Penn State and Rutgers. A Malcolm Hill lay-up in the dying seconds gave them the win over Penn State, and a strong shooting performance from the field helped them upend the Scarlet Knights on Tuesday.

Despite the fact that the team is on a two-game winning streak entering Saturday, Illinois has failed to gain any traction in Big Ten play. They have been unable to stretch a winning streak past two games, failing to capitalize on any momentum they have generated.

The Illini have an impressive win over then-#11 Maryland under their belts this season, which they can draw on for positive motivation entering Saturday’s game against the Spartans, and ultimately the final stretch of the year.

Saturday gives the Illini another chance for a momentum-generating win, but the Spartans will be more than up for the challenge on their home floor.

Last season, the Michigan State Spartans had well-documented injury issues, much like the Illini are going through this season. The Spartans are fully healthy this year, and are right in the thick of things in the Big Ten race.

Like Illinois this season, the Spartans have been unable to capitalize on any strong stretches of play and have failed to sustain any positive momentum for a long period of time. In conference play, their longest winning streak has been three games.

Michigan State is coming off a positive win for the team, having knocked off their instate rival, the Michigan Wolverines, 76-66 in overtime their last time out. The teams were all tied up at 66 at the end of regulation before the Spartans took things over in the extra period. Michigan State held the Wolverines scoreless over the five-minute overtime period to come away with the victory.

The win over Michigan has given the Spartans some much-needed momentum as they come into Saturday riding a two-game winning streak of their own.

In a battle of two teams looking to keep their positive momentum going, the outcome will come down to the play of the team’s biggest contributors.

Players to Watch

This game features the two players who earned co-Big Ten Player of the Week honors, and one of those individuals goes by the name of Malcolm Hill. The sophomore guard has excelled in the absence of Abrams this season, averaging 14.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game in 2014-15. Over his past five contests, he has upped his performance, averaging an impressive 18.0 points per contest. In the game against Maryland, Hill put up a season-high 28 points to help lead the Illini to victory. With Hill only being a sophomore, the Illini have a bright future ahead of them with him in the mix. If Hill is able to keep up his strong level of play, Illinois will have a great chance to score their third-straight victory and keep their momentum going.

On the Michigan State sideline is where we will find the other co-Big Ten Player of the Week award winner in senior forward Branden Dawson. It seems that game after game, Dawson is the player to keep an eye on, which is true. However, it’s hard to ignore his impact on the game for the Spartans. Dawson is averaging 12.0 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game this season. In Big Ten play, Dawson has been a force to be reckoned with, having recorded six double-doubles in nine conference games. He is coming off a season-high 19 points in his last time out against Michigan. With Dawson’s combination of experience, talent, and strength, he should be able to record yet another double-double on Saturday as he tries to lead the Spartans to their seventh conference win of the season.

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The Illinois Fighting Illini (15 – 8, 5 – 5) and the Michigan State Spartans (15 – 7, 6 – 3) are both looking for wins as they try to stay in the race for second place in the conference race. A win would do wonders for both teams, as just two games separate 2nd place from 9th in the Big Ten standings. Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans will be ready for whatever John Groce and the Illinois Fighting Illini have to throw at them.

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