Three Thoughts From Illinois’ Bubble-Saving Win Over Michigan StatePosted by Deepak Jayanti on March 2nd, 2017
A senior wing on a mission to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his career guarding a freshman wing determined to complete his comeback from an early injury was an appropriate ending to last night’s game between Illinois and Michigan State. The Illini’s Malcolm Hill has been on a complete tear lately, averaging approximately 20 points per game in leading his team to four straight wins to keep the team’s postseason hopes alive. The Spartans’ Miles Bridges did his part with 21 points and 10 rebounds, but the freshman could not close the deal in Champaign. Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, Illinois (18-12, 8-9 Big Ten) is clearly back on the bubble while Michigan State (18-12, 10-7 Big Ten) cannot afford to lose a pivotal road game against Maryland. Let’s review three key takeaways from the Illini’s 73-70 victory over the Spartans last night.
- Malcolm Hill isn’t ready to finish his career without a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Illinois’ senior wing has played over 130 games for the Illini without a single minute in college basketball’s marquee event. As a freshman, Illinois didn’t have a point guard to support his offensive versatility. As a sophomore, a late season swoon cost the Illini a chance at an otherwise promising season. Last year, the team’s second-best offensive player wasn’t healthy. As a senior, Hill hasn’t had a consistent complementary player on the offensive end of the floor. Despite these many setbacks over his career, Hill has persevered. On Wednesday night, the senior contributed 22 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals — including the game-winning free throws — as Illinois played itself back on to the NCAA Tournament bubble after appearing all but dead just a few short weeks ago.
- Who will help Hill down the stretch? Maverick Morgan or Leron Black? Not having a consistent second scoring option this season has stifled John Groce’s squad throughout, but both Maverick Morgan and Leron Black struck gold last night against the Spartans. Black, shooting a meager 21.0 percent from behind the arc this season, nailed three long-range shots in the second half as Illinois pulled away. Furthermore, when Hill started to see double-teams, Morgan contributed several clutch buckets on the low blocks. Neither player has been able to sustain consistently good offensive production for long periods but Groce needs at least one of the pair to continue playing well for the Illini to receive that elusive NCAA Tournament bid.
- Michigan State must limit its turnovers against Maryland. Michigan State ranks next-to-last in turnover rate in the Big Ten, and the Spartans committed 15 more miscues (versus Illinois’ seven) last night. The Spartans often looked chaotic in their half-court sets, with one-on-one isolation plays leading to careless turnovers when they could not find Bridges running off of baseline screens on the left wing. In order to take advantage of Bridges’ shooting ability — he made three triples last night and is shooting 41.3 percent from beyond the arc — Tom Izzo’s guards need to do a better job in protecting the ball this weekend against Maryland.