CHAMPAIGN — Having lost seven straight Big Ten games and still looking for its first victory of 2018, now would be a perfect time for the Illinois schedule to serve up a cream puff opponent.
Michigan State is anything but a cream puff.
When the struggling Illini line up against the Spartans tonight at the State Farm Center, they’ll be facing a team that ranks No. 1 in the country in assists, blocked shots and field goal defense, No. 2 in rebounding, No. 3 in field goal percentage and No. 9 in 3-point shooting.
Other than that, ninth-ranked Michigan State is just the latest difficult test for an Illini team that hasn’t won a basketball game since Dec. 30.
Perhaps worried that his players have forgotten what it looks like to play winning basketball, coach Brad Underwood assembled his team Saturday and showed tapes of some of their earlier winning performances. That included tape of its Braggin’ Rights victory over Missouri, a game in which Illinois shined on defense and brought 40 minutes of winning effort.
That was not the case Friday night when Underwood chided his team’s effort in a 75-50 loss at Wisconsin.
“An unusual game for us, a little surprising to be honest,” Underwood said of the blowout at Wisconsin. “Maybe a little heartbreak hangover from the Nebraska game (when Illinois lost on a last-second 3-pointer), but that’s no excuse.
“We got outplayed and outworked and when you don’t show up with maximum effort in conference play, those things are going to happen. We talked about it at length.
“We showed in the Missouri game how mental the game can be. We played to win that game. We played with maximum effort and we were very, very good. I think it caught everybody’s attention seeing that effort vs. what we put forth in Wisconsin.”
Despite its 17-3 record, Michigan State recently went through a rough patch in which it lost to Ohio State, beat Rutgers in overtime and lost at home to Michigan.
But the Spartans rebounded in strong fashion Friday when it blew past Indiana 85-57, making 10 of 20 3s in the process.
“This is a team with tremendous size, one of the best rebounding teams in the country, one of the best defensive teams in the country and it’s understated how fast they are,” Underwood said. “They’re very good in transition.
“We have to limit their easy baskets but they will get some. They’ve done it against every single opponent. They play the way I’d like to in terms of pushing and attacking.”
Underwood said he’s trying to get Illinois to play faster.
“Our pace of play has become slow,” he said. “It’s about pitching ahead. We’re playing too much in the half court for the way we need to play. We’ve become passive.”
Part of that is that Illinois has slipped defensively.
“We need to get stops,” Underwood said. “One leads to the other. When you are taking the ball out of the net all of the time, which we did at Wisconsin, it becomes more challenging to run. It’s pitching ahead, moving the ball up the court, the wings getting out and running. Those are things we haven’t done.”
Tonight begins a three-game home stand for the Illini, which just finished a stretch of playing four out of five on the road.
Illinois hosts Indiana at 8 p.m. Wednesday.