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Suddenly struggling Spartans know pressure will be on at Illinois

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston will face an Illinois team leading the Big Ten in forcing turnovers.

East Lansing — For a team that has had its share of problems taking care of the ball at various times this season, a trip to Illinois might not be the best solution to ending a two-game skid.

However, that’s exactly the position No. 9 Michigan State finds itself in as it prepares for Tuesday’s 7 p.m. tip-off against the Fighting Illini at the State Farm Center.

While Michigan State has done a better job in Big Ten play at hanging on to the ball, it’s still going to be challenged by an Illinois team that has forced 370 turnovers this season, the best in the conference. Add in the fact the Spartans are thinner on the perimeter with Joshua Langford out for the season and Kyle Ahrens still not 100 percent as he recovers from a back injury, and it’s potentially a difficult matchup for a team in a three-way tie for first place in the Big Ten.

“That is a concern for me,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Monday. “I don’t know where Kyle is and for another week or two we won’t know where he’s gonna be. Some of the freshmen aren’t quite ready for that, and a lot of that falls on Cassius (Winston) and (Matt) McQuaid. I think McQuaid has spent a lot of energy on one thing (defense), and it’s ridiculous he got three shots (vs. Indiana). Some of that is my fault. I gotta do a better job with that. Some of it is just the lack of our break, which we get points off and get shots off of.

“But they are very disruptive defensively and also have done a great job utilizing people. They have athletes at every position and play eight or nine guys. They play that style of crazy pressure and doing those things. If you turn it over and they score off it you’re in trouble. If you don’t turn it over, I think that’s how you win games.”

Michigan State (18-4, 9-2 Big Ten) has found a way to win when it has had its highest number of turnovers, but it has hurt the Spartans as well, namely in early losses to Kansas and Louisville.

How much that creeps back in as the Spartans rely heavily on Winston and McQuaid, who will each play heavy minutes the rest of the way, remains to be seen. Winston played 44 minutes in the overtime loss to the Hoosiers while McQuaid as limited to 31 minutes with foul trouble.

Both, Izzo said, are simply going to have to learn to deal with the high amount of playing time while he and his staff do a better job of getting them rest strategically throughout games. 

It hasn’t caught up to Winston, who on Monday was named one of 10 candidates for the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award. He’s averaging 18.8 points and 7.3 assists a game while shooting 45.4 percent from 3-point range. The key is finding a way for McQuaid to become more of an offensive threat while still maintaining his role as the team’s top perimeter defender.

McQuaid is shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range this season, but took just three shots in the loss to Indiana after getting 12 at Purdue.

“I think he’s put a lot of emphasis on defense, which how selfless can you be to do that?” Izzo said. “That kid is a scorer. I think a little bit is confidence and a little bit is wearing himself out trying to do some things. … We’re putting him on the best offensive player night-in night-out, and that is taxing in itself.

“Some of it is we’re not doing a good job as a staff getting him the ball. We’ve got to get him in a position to get more shots. I don’t care how may misses he has, he’s got to get 8-10 shots, especially with Josh out of there. Josh was getting 11, 12 a game, minimum.”

Getting the fast break going also will help free up some opportunities for McQuaid, but if Michigan State rebounds like it did against Indiana, it will be difficult to get into transition.

The Spartans were outrebounded for just the third time this season Saturday with the 20 offensive rebounds allowed being the biggest culprit in stopping the break. It’s something that, a few days later, still bothered Izzo. He wasn’t fretting over the poor free-throw shooting in the loss to Indiana. Instead, it was the effort-related stat of rebounding for a team that annually is among the best in the country.

However, he expects his team to rebound.

“As I learned (Sunday) night watching end of the Super Bowl, the Patriots went through tough times,” Izzo said. “Everybody goes through some in a year. There are very few teams that go start to finish without going through a few ups and downs. … But that is in the past, the rear view. All we can try and do is learn from it.”

What Izzo is certain Michigan State won’t do is play the record. It might have in the loss to Indiana after the Hoosiers had lost seven straight. But even though Illinois (7-15, 3-8) is near the bottom of the Big Ten, the Illini have won two of the last three, including a victory over then-No. 13 Maryland.

“They’ve been playing better and better and better, and are a hard team to play against,” Izzo said. “What will play a factor is making sure we defend, rebound, run and we take care of the ball. They’re gonna try and bring waves of guys in and we’re. gonna have to find a way to rest Cassius and Quaido a little bit.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau

No. 9 Michigan State at Illinois

Tip-off: 7 p.m. Tuesday, State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.

TV/radio: ESPN2/WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 18-4, 9-2 Big Ten; Illinois 7-15, 3-8

Outlook: Michigan State has won three of its last four games at the State Farm Center. … Junior guard Cassius Winston was named one of 10 candidates for the Bob Cousy Award on Monday, given to the top point guard in the nation. … While the Fighting Illini have force more turnovers this season than any Big Ten team, they are allowing 74.9 points a game, which ranks last in the conference.