CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois basketball team limped home to the State Farm Center, loser of five straight, including a drubbing at the hands of Wisconsin and winless in Big Ten Conference play.
Things didn't get any easier for the Illini on Monday night against No. 6-ranked Michigan State, which came to town with a substantial size and athletic advantage in tow.
But the Illini barked, bit and scrapped to give the Spartans all they wanted before the athleticism of Michigan State was simply too much on the way to Michigan State's 87-74 win. The 0-8 start ties Illinois' worst conference start in school history.
The Spartans (18-3, 6-3) soared above the rim on alley-oop after alley-oop, posing problems that the Illini (10-11, 0-8) had no answer for.
Nearly every Michigan State shot was high percentage — the Spartans shot 68.2 percent to break the opponent field goal percentage record at the State Farm Center. The record was previously 65.4 percent set by Northwestern in 1975.
The Spartans were 10-of-10 on dunk attempts and made 13 of 15 layups.
Potential NBA draft picks Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., in particular, were beasts the Illini couldn't tame.
Bridges scored 31 points on 11-of-13 shooting from the field (84.6 percent) and recorded eight rebounds. Jackson had 21 points on 5-of-6 shooting, but converted 11-of-12 from the free-throw line while pulling in a game-high 11 rebounds and blocking six shots.
“Bridges was a man, he really was in every way shape and form,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Jaren Jackson had play after play.”
But, when all seemed bleak and the Illini looked poised to suffer another loss by 20-plus points, Kipper Nichols and Trent Frazier provided glimpses of hope down the stretch.
Michigan State led 64-46 with just over 10 minutes to go before the tandem scored 14 of Illinois' next 18 points, But Illinois couldn't slow the Spartans on the other end.
Nichols scored 13 points in the final 7:35 and Frazier scored five in the same span to pull the Illini as close as eight with 1:03 left before the Spartans closed the game at the free-throw line.
“I liked the team I coached tonight a lot,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “The name the Fighting Illini, that was us tonight. Compared to what I watched Friday night, this was a little different. We've got to grow, we've got to understand that's the way the game's played. Michigan State is who they are. That's what they do every night.”
Nichols scored a career-high 27 points while knocking down a career-high five 3-pointers.
He scored 22 of his 27 points in the second half.
“Everything (Underwood) puts in place. I got open within the offense, my teammates found me and I found a few shots,” Nichols said. “What he preaches all the time, being an everyday guy, that's one thing I'm focused on making a habit of doing.”
Frazier finished with 13 points, but missed all six of his 3-point attempts.
Then there was the rebounding, where Illinois was outrebounded 37-15. Each team pulled in nine offensive rebounds, but Michigan State capitalized with 15 second-chance points.
“They're a big team, but we've got to take more pride in that,” Nichols said. “We've got to hit bodies when the ball goes up. We have to find a way, we can do it, we can do anything. We've got to hone in on that for sure, playing big teams like that.”
Illinois forced the Spartans into 25 turnovers, the third game Michigan State has turned it over more than 20 times, but on each occasion it went on to win by double-figures.
“This team, that's what they do, they turn everybody in the league over 18 times a game,” Izzo said. “It's not just us.”
The Spartans blocked nine Illinois shots, with Jackson leading the charge.
“Jaren, I thought was unbelievable, the only thing that happened to Jaren I think was he got tired.” Izzo said. “He was so good.”
Underwood saw more than enough from the Spartans to know that they have enough to make yet another deep run in the NCAA Tournament under Izzo.
“They're really good.,” Underwood said. “I think this is a team that can make a huge run in the postseason. For two reasons, great size, great depth and not one but two great players.
“Most nights (Cassius) Winston is going to play better than probably he did tonight. This is a team that can make a deep run. They're a Final Four-caliber team and a Final Four-caliber coach. In any conference they would be right where they are.”
Michigan State led 39-32 at halftime despite 15 turnovers. When the Spartans did get in an offensive rhythm, they shot 78.9 percent in the half led by Bridges' 17 halftime points and 6-of-6 shooting.
After attempting just three shot attempts in Madison on Friday night for four points, Michael Finke was aggressive for the Illini, scoring nine points in the first half on Monday, but did not score in the second half.
Finke hit a 3-pointer with 8:11 left in the first half to give the Illini a 24-23 lead, but Bridges answered back on the other end with an alley-oop dunk from Winston to give the Spartans a 25-24 lead.
The Illini never led again.
Illinois will host Indiana at 8 p.m. Wednesday.