Jan. 31, 2005
What a great matchup it'll be when top-ranked Illinois visits East Lansing, Michigan for a battle against Michigan State on Tuesday night (ESPN, 7 p.m ET). I can't wait to call the game with play-by-play man Dan Shulman, because all Big Ten fans will have their eyes on this one, baby!
I really feel that the Illini (21-0, 7-0 Big Ten) — who ended Wisconsin's 38-game home winning streak last week — could run the table and go unbeaten in the regular season if they're able to defeat the Spartans (14-3, 5-1 Big Ten). This is the one obstacle that could be the defining factor in whether Illinois does the same thing St. Joseph's did last season: achieve a perfect regular campaign.
The last team to pitch a perfect game and go on to win the national championship was another Big Ten team, Indiana in 1976. Since then, 13 teams have started the season 20-0, but all failed to capture the coveted national championship.
Last season, when Duke visited East Lansing, the Blue Devils scored a blowout win.
Illinois is a definite threat to win six games in a row come NCAA Tournament time. The Illini are capable of cutting down the nets in Saint Louis because of their perimeter play. Any time you can excel on the perimeter like they do, with playmakers and guys who can shoot outside, watch out! Illinois has guys who can make the big play in crunch time, as shown in close calls against Iowa and Wisconsin.
Coach Bruce Weber's club also has athletes who defend well. Inside, James Augustine is underrated and very tough. Roger Powell gets on the glass and was brilliant against Minnesota with 21 big points.
Illinois has to feel good about the emotion of last Saturday's 100th anniversary celebration. More than 300 former Illini players were in attendance, as were several ex-coaches, including Lou Henson. Hall of Famer Jerry Colangelo was there as well to speak to the team. The Orange Crush fans had a super time.
Michigan State will be at home, with the Izzone cheering on coach Tom Izzo's Spartans. The place will be going bananas — it's one of the toughest places to play in America. The Spartans can also defend and shoot well, and if this game goes to the wire, Michigan State is an exceptional foul-shooting team.
Can Michigan State's guards handle the Illini's defensive on-ball pressure? The Spartans must limit turnovers, so point-guard play will be a factor. That has been their Achilles heel the past two years. If Michigan State can't handle the pressure, Illinois will take a big W back to Champaign.
Spartans big man Paul Davis, who sat out last Saturday against Oakland University with an ankle injury, has to come through inside. Michigan State has won 11 of its past 12 games, and the big fella has to be dominant inside. Chris Hill and Alan Anderson are veteran leaders who must shoot well outside. Kelvin Torbert needs to contribute off the bench.
To win, Michigan State needs its A-game. Last season, when Duke visited East Lansing, the Blue Devils scored a blowout win. How will the Spartans handle the pressure this time around? Illinois has a 17-game conference win streak and pride in knowing what's at stake.
It should be a phenomenal setting as these teams battle it out.
Dick Vitale coached the Pistons and the University of Detroit before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979. Send a question to Vitale for possible use on ESPNEWS.