Illini's Hill, Nunn pose problems for MSU

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State returns home for the first time in nearly a month Thursday, and it will be facing a team that has given it all sorts of trouble over the years.

Even with an 0-2 start in Big Ten play, Illinois will give the Spartans a stiff test thanks to the scoring duo of Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, two of the top scorers in the conference.

“Nunn and Hill are still back and those guys have been a thorn in our side,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “They’re the dynamic duo, both are averaging 18 points a game. I think they come here kind of desperate with some confidence because they beat us here before.”

Nunn is averaging 18.5 points and 5.5 rebounds a game while Hill is scoring 17.9 points. Both were key in Illinois’ win last season at the Breslin Center and will be again Thursday as No. 5 Michigan State plays its first Big Ten home game and enters its fourth game without guard Denzel Valentine.

Illinois had won five straight before losing to Michigan and Ohio State to begin conference play. It also hung tough with Notre Dame and Iowa State in nonconference action and lost by one to Providence.

On top of that, the Illini have won two straight meetings at the Breslin Center.

“I think they play hard all the time,” Izzo said. “They have some tough kids, some Chicago kids that are tough kids and that’s just the way it is. I don’t expect it any different on Thursday, unfortunately for us. I think it’s going to be a battle.”

Michigan State enters the game with the best 3-point shooting defense (27.3 percent) in the Big Ten and it will be tested against Illinois’ athletic perimeter. Where the Spartans have a clear advantage is in the post.

Matt Costello is coming off a double-double against Minnesota, his second in three games, while the Spartans used a bigger lineup to knock off the Gophers. They could use more of that Thursday, especially with teams turning their defensive focus on Bryn Forbes.

“We’re going to have to play well,” Izzo said. “They gave Ohio State a helluva game, and we’re going to have to play better than we’ve been playing. If you asked me, and yet I don’t think we’ve been awful, I just think something is missing. The something missing is a pretty important guy.”

That guy, of course, is Valentine. He won’t play Thursday but hopes to get back by Sunday’s game at Penn State.

In his absence, Forbes has had a couple of big games — 32 points against Oakland was a career-high — while Eron Harris has become more of a scorer. Continuing that effort will be important for the Spartans.

“Zel does everything,” Forbes said. “He rebounds, defends, brings toughness, coaches on the floor, coaches off the floor. It’s a big loss, but it’s not to say we can’t do it when he’s not here. But it’s a lot more difficult.”

If Michigan State gets through the week unscathed, the schedule gets tougher. No. 19 Iowa comes to Breslin Center next week for a rematch followed by a trip to Wisconsin. The following weekend, No. 3 Maryland comes to town on Jan. 23 for an ESPN GameDay matchup.

By then, the Spartans expect to be whole again.

“We’ve ham and egged it, we’ve had to play differently,” Izzo said. “We’ve taken some shots from some good teams. We’ve figured out that Iowa must not be that bad. They went to Purdue and won.

“So being 14-1, I’m good with. Being 14-1 with the way we’ve played the last couple games, I’m not as comfortable with, but I have seen some progress.”

Illinois at No. 5 Michigan State

Tip-off: 9 p.m. Thursday, Breslin Center, East Lansing

TV/radio: ESPN/WJR

Records: Illinois 8-7, 0-2 Big Ten; Michigan State 14-1, 1-1

Notable: This is Michigan State’s first Big Ten home game. … Eighteen of the last 19 meetings with Illinois have been decided by 10 points or less. … Over the past 65 seasons, Michigan State has posted a 45-20 mark in Big Ten home openers. Tom Izzo is 17-3 in Big Ten home openers, including winning 12 of his last 13.