CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- What happens when you mix a tough, highly-ranked road team, an injured star, a potentially explosive offensive home squad and a spaceship-shaped bowl full of insane fans?
You get Saturday night's thrilling 78-73 Illinois win over Michigan State. That's what you get.
As sports fans, we place a big premium on the ability of those to predict what will happen ahead of game time, so maybe I'm revealing too much when I admit the following: I had no idea what would happen Saturday night. Was Illinois talented enough to keep up with a more athletic Michigan State team? Or would Kalin Lucas' injury cripple the Spartans? And just how much would the Assembly Hall home crowd -- pumped up from a full day of College GameDay festivities -- affect the outcome?
Consider those questions answered. Here's what we now know:
Demetri McCamey can fill it up. The Illini point guard went on a tear in the early part of the second half, helping the Illini build a six-point lead. Later, with 37 seconds remaining, McCamey's dead eye gave Illinois a commanding 73-68 lead. McCamey dominates the ball for the Illini, and when he's feeling it -- when he's breaking down defenders, getting to the rim, and catching the ball on curl cuts out by the 3-point line -- he's very tough to defend.
Michigan State is balanced enough to survive without Lucas, but it's doubtful it can thrive with him in street clothes as he was Saturday. It's a good thing Lucas' injury seems minor -- he was day-to-day before tonight's game and could be back for MSU's game with Purdue on Tuesday -- because without him, the Spartans lack a clear leader on the floor at crucial moments.
Still, Michigan State is tough on the road. This team built a 9-0 record in the Big Ten (before its ugly loss to Wisconsin last week) for a reason: They're really tough. In a jam-packed, loud-as-it-gets environment facing a hot, adrenaline-fueled Illinois team -- and, as mentioned, playing without their leading scorer -- the Spartans gave themselves plenty of opportunities to win. Perfect example: Durrell Summers' 3 to pull it within one with 17 seconds remaining. The Spartans have plenty of people who can make shots, and Saturday night, they were ready. The difference between this game and the Wisconsin loss was startling. (Sure, that has a lot to do with the relative talent of their opponents, but still.)
The Big Ten has a deserved reputation for being slow, but both of these teams seem to do their best work on the break. This is especially true of Michigan State, but Illinois had its fair share of open jumpers in transition -- shots after one or two passes on the secondary break -- and the Illini made them count.
Brandon Paul can rise. The 2009 Illinois Mr. Basketball's soaring one-handed dunk in transition at the 9-minute mark was huge in every sense of the word. Emotionally, it lifted the Illini fans into a defeaning frenzy; visually, it was breathtaking.
Speaking of which, UI's freshman are growing up. I saw them play Gonzaga early in the year, and they were full of little freshman mistakes -- bad shots, confused cuts, the occasional awkward turnover. Those mistakes are all but gone. Instead, for example, freshman D.J. Richardson iced two free throws in the final seconds to give Illinois a three-point lead. Richardson finished with 14 points; Paul with eight.
Students like to rush courts. Fans wasted no time spilling onto the hardwood after Illinois finished off the Spartans tonight, a questionable court-rush at best. Then again, Illinois is unranked, and it just beat the No 5 team in the land. Then again again, Kalin Lucas was injured, and Illinois went to the title game five years ago. So ... yeah. Questionable. At best. Then again again again, we should probably all stop complaining about bad court rushes now. They happen. Oh well, right? There are worse things in the world, probably.