MSU looks to keep momentum going vs. surging Illinois

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing -- Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was disappointed on Monday, bummed he couldn’t let the feelings of Sunday’s Senior Day win over Wisconsin linger, his team riding a wave of emotion as the Spartans celebrated and made memories for injured Eron Harris.

It was the fourth win in five games for Michigan State and offered a signature win to the NCAA Tournament resume as its young roster continued to show it might be peaking at exactly the right time of year.

The reality, however, is all of that goes out the window of if the Spartans don’t close the final week of the regular season strong, beginning with Wednesday 9 p.m. tip at Illinois, a team that has won three straight and now finds itself scratching for an NCAA Tournament spot that a few weeks ago seemed unlikely.

“It is something that will be in the memory for the rest of the season and maybe beyond,” Izzo said of the final home game, “but for now one thing we are telling our players and staff is that we are 100 percent Illinois.”

That’s the approach Michigan State (18-11, 10-6 Big Ten) must take for more than one reason. The biggest is because it will keep the Spartans headed on the right path entering the postseason, both for the NCAA Tournament and positioning in the Big Ten tournament as a double-bye is still up for grabs.

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The bigger picture is getting the freshman-heavy lineup to build on the momentum it has created over the last few games and show they can get it done on the road. It’s something they haven’t been able to do this season with only two road wins in Big Ten play, with the first coming back in December.

“It’s different from the standpoint of everybody saying we’re not prepared to play on the road,” freshman guard Joshua Langford said of the approach heading to Illinois. “We want to come out and make a statement because we’ve had some letdowns on away games. We haven’t been too good on away games, so we have to come in and really focus and lock in and play how we know we can play.”

How they’ve been playing has been pretty impressive. In the last two games — wins over Nebraska and Wisconsin — it’s been primarily on the freshmen, who combined for 58 of the 84 points against Wisconsin, which came three days after accounting for 64 of the 88 points against Nebraska.

The run has included back-to-back 20-point games from Nick Ward, the usual steady play of Miles Bridges, a career-high 17 from Langford vs. the Cornhuskers and the rapidly improving performance of Cassius Winston, who handed out eight assists in each game.

“It shows, one, how talented we really are and, two, that we’ve been learning,” Winston said. “At the beginning of the year I don’t know if we could’ve beaten a team like that, with that much experience over us. I just feel like we’re learning, the little things and details that take a good team to a great team.”

He was talking about facing a senior-heavy Illinois team, but the same could have gone for Wisconsin. The difference this time, of course, is the freshmen will have to perform away from the Breslin Center, not only against Illinois but on Saturday at Maryland in the regular-season finale.

“I do think they’re growing up,” Izzo said. “I don’t think they’re freshmen anymore but that’s why I’m almost anxious to see … how do we go on the road in a hostile environment on senior night. It will be nuts, (Illinois) feels like they’re playing for a lot now and they’ve got three or four seniors that have been there four, five and six years. So it will be a real measuring stick for us, I think.”

The players think they’ve turned the corner. Not only have the freshmen played well but sophomore Matt McQuaid broke out against Wisconsin and the Spartans even got big minutes from sophomore Kyle Ahrens.

It’s all building the confidence of a young team that might be playing its best.

“The key is not to get too high and not get too low,” Langford said. “Just stay even-keeled. That’s the key to having mental toughness and locking down and focusing in. Make sure you always stay in the present moment.

“There’s the saying carpe diem — seize the day. Every day we have to seize the day, seize the moment and just keep on moving forward and do what we’re supposed to do.”

Michigan State at Illinois

Tip-off: Wednesday, 9 p.m., State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.

TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 18-11, 10-6 Big Ten; Illinois 17-12, 7-9

Outlook: Michigan State has won 10 of the last 15 meetings, including the last two matchups in Champaign. … Illinois has won three straight games and four of the last five. Senior Malcolm Hill is fifth in the conference in scoring, averaging 17 points a game and is fifth on the Illinois career scoring list with 1,737 points.