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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 19 Marshall at Illinois

Illinois guard Mark Smith (13) drives to the basket against Marshall earlier this season at State Farm Center in Champaign.

With 28 points in a victory over Nebraska on Sunday, University of Illinois junior Leron Black had a career game.

Trent Frazier had his Jan. 19 with 32 points against Wisconsin.

And the last time Illinois played Michigan State, Kipper Nichols stepped up with 27 points.

Illinois is finally adding more scoring options. If Mark Smith can build on a potential breakthrough performance against Nebraska, he could broaden the pool of players Illini coach Brad Underwood can count on down the home stretch of a long season.

Illinois (13-15, 3-12) plays league leader and No. 2-ranked Michigan State (26-3, 14-2) at 6 p.m. Tuesday at East Lansing, Mich. (ESPN).

Underwood said Monday he expects Smith to finish strong.

“My message to Mark is, ‘Be a good player. It’s time,’” Underwood said. “My confidence in Mark has always been maybe a little higher than he has in himself. I challenge him every day. He has a tremendous amount of offensive talent. He has struggled defensively but he’s getting better.

“I expect Mark to have a great end of the season, I really do.”

Smith scored eight points against Nebraska. More than that, he made several impact plays including three assists, a rebound and an aggressive battle for another rebound that went out of bounds off a Nebraska player. Illinois retained possession on that play at a critical juncture in a close game.

“That might have been the key play in the game,” Underwood said. “Just Mark’s willingness to get in there.”

Until Sunday, Smith had not scored eight points since he totaled eight at Michigan 11 games ago. He played 18 minutes Sunday, including crunch-time minutes, and hadn’t played that long in the last six games.

“I’m just glad I could do something to help the team win,” Smith said Monday. “That’s all I really care about. Points don’t bother me.”

Smith said he’d like to have a strong finish, just as Underwood is predicting. “It would be great to see my hard work pay off,” he said. “I just keep trusting the process. I know it will help me later. I feel like every time I go out there I’m getting better.”

At Michigan State, Smith will be playing in a building he visited during the recruiting process when he was a senior at Edwardsville.

“I’ve walked around that campus a lot,” he said. “It would be great to get a big win there.”

To do that, Illinois would have to upset a team coming off a historic comeback after falling behind by 27 points Saturday against Northwestern. Michigan State held Northwestern to 11 points in the second half and won, 65-60, for its 10th straight victory.

The Spartans beat Illinois 87-74 in Champaign on Jan. 22 when Miles Bridges scored 31 points and Jaren Jackson Jr. added 21 points and 11 rebounds.

Like previous Tom Izzo-coached teams, Michigan State is taking aim at a strong finish that could lock down a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

“They’re a team that really hurt us in transition the first time,” Underwood said. “They scored 26 points in transition. We had an early lead and three times we took 3-pointers with 21, 22 seconds on the shot clock. Those ended up being easy baskets for Michigan State and we never recovered.”

Illinois will fly home after the game and have a one-day prep for Thursday night’s home game against No. 9 Purdue. Then Illinois will fly to Piscataway, N.J., on Saturday for Sunday afternoon’s regular-season finale at Rutgers.

From there, the Illini plan to stay out east, shifting to New York City to prepare for its likely Big Ten Conference Tournament opener Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.

Follow Mark Tupper on Twitter: @MarkTupper


Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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