East Lansing — A couple of weeks ago, after Michigan State lost at home to Illinois, junior center Matt Costello talked about the fact there wasn't much happiness surrounding the Spartans.
They had just lost at home, and that was understandable, but he said even after wins the team didn't feel good about the way it was playing.
Headed into its rematch with Illinois at the State Farm Center on Sunday, the mood has changed dramatically for Michigan State (18-8, 9-4 Big Ten).
The Spartans have won three straight and in the last six games, the only loss was the setback to the Fighting Illini.
It has led to a team playing with confidence it was busy seeking early in the season.
"We're playing well," Costello said. "(Branden Dawson) is playing well, Travis (Trice) is playing well, Zel (Denzel Valentine) is playing well, players are taking care of their jobs."
Costello said the demeanor changed after the loss to Illinois and heading into the one-sided win at Northwestern.
"We got backed into a wall," Costello said. "And none of us are losers, none of us are little babies. If we get backed into a wall, we come out swinging. So I feel like we did that against Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan. Now that our backs are out of the wall, we've got to keep playing."
And for coach Tom Izzo, it's a matter of his players starting to understand what he expects from them.
"I think we're getting better every day," Izzo said. "Sometimes I still worry that this team struggles to focus in as much as I think you need to focus in. But I do think there's just a better feel, a comfort level because I think people are starting to learn their roles. I think they know their roles. Travis was unbelievable early in practice today and (Dawson) was unbelievable. Both guys shot the daylights out of it early. And so we're just gonna keep milking that."
Dawson has been the Spartans' best player all season and Trice has rediscovered his confidence coming off the bench the last three games. He scored 22 and handed out seven assists in the victory over Michigan while Dawson had 23 points and 13 rebounds.
For now, Izzo plans to stick with Trice off the bench and freshman Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn as the starter, though changes to the lineup aren't out of the question.
"I didn't tinker as much with the lineup," Izzo said. "I'm gonna keep Trav where he's at. I look at him as a sixth starter … He's still gonna probably play a lot of minutes and he's still probably one of the more valuable players, but we are going to leave that."
Izzo will also play Nairn and Trice together plenty while still expecting plenty of contribution from guard Bryn Forbes, as well as Costello and Gavin Schilling at center.
"Costello and Schilling, I could change my mind on those two guys," Izzo said. "I got a little more out of Gavin the last game, so right now I plan on staying the way we are."
That tandem will have to be tougher against Illinois this time around after center Nnanna Egwu sparked the Illini win in East Lansing. The 6-foot-11 senior had 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots in 39 minutes, and even nailed a pair of 3-pointers in the five-point victory.
"He did have a decent game inside," Izzo said, "but it's the two threes that really kill you. We thought he was more physical. He rebounded better. He blocked a couple shots. That's going to be a challenge. That kid is playing better and so I think that's a big challenge for our two guys."
And it will be a challenge for the Spartans, who have lost three of their last four at the State Farm Center.
They'll need to stop the tandem of Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, who combined to score 33 in the last meeting, as well as the return of leading scorer Rayvonte Rice.
"They're athletic and they have a lot of weapons that can score," Valentine said. "Nunn, Rice and Hill can all light it up, so our defense has to be dialed in and focused, and everybody will have to have each others' back and communicate out there."
Michigan State at Illinois
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.
TV/radio: BTN/WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 18-8, 9-4 Big Ten; Illinois 17-9, 7-6
Notable: The visiting team has won the last three meetings in the series. … .. Illinois averages just 9.9 turnovers per game, ranking 11th in the nation. … MSU freshman Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn has started four games. He is 9-for-12 shooting and the Spartans are 4-0.