Spartans visit Illini in Big Ten tussle

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Updated: 1/18 8:25 am

Champaign, IL ( - The suddenly slumping Illinois Fighting Illini will try to turn things around at home on Saturday night, although doing so won't be easy as they play host to the fourth-ranked Michigan State Spartans.

Michigan State is at the other end of the spectrum, in terms of recent success, as the team has won its last nine games to improve to 16-1, which includes a 5-0 league ledger. The Spartans went to overtime in wins against Ohio State and Minnesota, and then played in a defensive struggle at Northwestern on Wednesday night, getting past the Wildcats in a 54-40 final. MSU is 4-0 in true road games this season.

Illinois had spent time in the national rankings earlier this season, as the team had won 13 of its first 15 games. The conference slate began well enough for the Illini, who beat Indiana and Penn State in succession, but then came a 95-70 blowout loss at Wisconsin. That was followed by setbacks to both Northwestern (49-43) and most recently, Purdue (66-58). Despite its recent struggles, UI is 9-1 at home this season.

The all-time series between these Big Ten Conference rivals is knotted at 56-56, but the Illini have won seven of the last nine meetings in Champaign, including three straight. The Spartans won the last encounter though, taking an 80-75 decision in East Lansing on Jan. 31, 2013.

Michigan State has been highly productive at both ends of the floor this season, putting up 80.5 ppg thanks to 47.5 percent field goal efficiency, which includes a 38.7 percent showing from 3-point range. The team boasts four double-digit scorers, led by Gary Harris with 17.6 ppg. Adreian Payne (16.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg), Keith Appling (16.1 ppg, 4.6 apg, 3.6 rpg) and Branden Dawson (10.1 ppg, 8.9 rpg) round out the top performers for the Spartans, who allow just 63.9 ppg on typical shooting efforts of .377 overall and .311 from beyond the arc. MSU also owns favorable margins in both rebounds (+5.8) and turnovers (+2.8).

Harris and Appling were the only Spartans to score in double figures in the recent win over Northwestern, as the backcourt mates tallied 14 and 11 points, respectively. As a team, Michigan State shot just 38.5 percent from the field, missing the mark on 14 of its 16 3-point attempts along the way. Fortunately, the Spartans were on their game from a defensive perspective, as they shut down the Wildcats who managed just a 28.3 percent shooting effort, which included a dismal 5-of-23 showing from beyond the arc.

Poor shooting and a lack of a presence on the glass cost the Fighting Illini in their recent bout with Purdue. Illinois, which had three guys score in double digits, connected on only 38.5 percent of its total shots, including a 7-of-21 effort from long distance, and it was badly beaten on the boards, 42-28. Tracy Abrams led the team with 13 points and five assists, while Rayvonte Rice and Joseph Bertrand chipped in with 11 points apiece.

Rice is tied for second in the Big Ten in scoring with his 17.7 ppg, and he is joined in double digits by Abrams (12.7 ppg) and Bertrand (11.0 ppg). Jon Ekey (6.0 rpg) heads up the club's rebounding effort, and the Illini are +6.8 in scoring margin, +3.2 in rebounding differential, and +1.7 in turnover margin.

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