East Lansing – It was Sunday night and Michigan State had just finished a one-sided victory over Western Michigan to close out non-conference play.
Even without Cassius Winston, who missed the first game in his career with a bone bruise in his left knee, the Spartans rolled, leading by 45 at one point in the second half as the bench cleared and the holiday crowd enjoyed a stress-free win.
Afterward, however, one man wasn’t terribly pleased. That was, of course, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. For more than 30 minutes, Izzo said, the Spartans played outstanding. But when things were out of hand late in the game, Izzo turned his focus to his big men. Not starter Xavier Tillman, but the likes of Marcus Bingham, Malik Hall, Thomas Kithier and Julius Marble.
That group, Izzo said, didn’t finish the game the way he expected as Western Michigan chipped 12 points off its biggest deficit. It happened for one reason, Izzo said.
“There’s expectations here and expectations are effort-related things,” Izzo said. “(There’s) missed shots, stupid fouls, even forget a play once in a while, but not effort-related things. I thought that's what we had and we had to nip that in the bud.”
While it might not matter how a team closed the final five minutes of a game it led by 45 points, Izzo’s frustration wasn’t about the effect it had on the victory over Western Michigan. Instead, it was all about what the Spartans were getting set to face on Thursday and beyond.
No. 14 Michigan State (10-3, 2-0 Big Ten) jumps back into conference play by hosting Illinois at 8 p.m. on Thursday and the Fighting Illini (9-4, 1-1) feature a starting lineup that features two of the biggest, most physical front-court players in the conference.
At 7-foot and 290 pounds, Kofi Cockburn is averaging 16 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game and has been named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Week five times. He scored a career-high 26 points in a victory over North Carolina A&T on Sunday and was 11-for-16 shooting. Cockburn’s running mate is the 6-9, 235-pound sophomore Giorgi Bezhanishvili, and he’s scoring 8.5 points a game while grabbing 5.3 rebounds.
It’s the sort of front line that will require a full 40-minute effort, unlike the one they had on Sunday.
“We’re going to try to move him around,” Izzo said of Cockburn. “But the guy has done a very good job. … And you have a guy like Giorgi, who was really so good last year, and now this guy's kind of taken over some and now they’ve got two monsters.”
Tillman has seen his share of big men and understands what the Spartans will be up against.
“They’re good, they’re tough, those two,” Tillman said. “Giorgi and Kofi, it's weird because they’re two different players but they know how to play off each other so well, and for being a sophomore and a freshman, you don't really see that a lot. So that's pretty cool to see.”
Which means the big men can’t take a break, even if the Spartans move out to a big lead like they have the last couple of games to close out non-conference play.
Tillman is taking it upon himself to make sure there will be no lapses.
“Just let them know that in order to play on the court, all effort plays need to be completed,” Tillman said. “If you think you can give half effort then basically you can't play. That's just the way it goes here. We need 100-percent effort all the time.
“That goes for everybody, including myself. I’ve seen on film a couple times I was standing up on defense and that can't go because in the Big Ten they play off every mistake that you make on defense end, so we're trying to limit those as much as we can.”
While the big men focus on a full 40-minute effort, the Spartans are hoping to get Winston back. After practice on Tuesday, he and Izzo were optimistic and getting reigning Big Ten Player of the Year on the court will be important against an Illinois defense that forced 24 Michigan State turnovers last year.
Winston had one of his worst games of the year, turning it over nine times in a 79-74 loss at Illinois, but he believes that game will help him this time around.
“Just not letting them rush me, doing a better job keeping my pace, keeping my poise, don't force anything and trusting my teammates,” Winston said, “that we’re gonna have a really good game, move the ball around and attack them and be aggressive.”
Illinois at No. 14 Michigan State
Tip-off: 8 p.m. Thursday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: FS1/WJR 760
Records: Illinois 9-4, 1-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 10-3, 2-0
Outlook: Michigan State returns to Big Ten play with three straight home games. After Thursday’s matchup with Illinois, the Spartans host Michigan on Sunday and Minnesota on Jan. 9. … Illinois, which beat Michigan at home and lost by one at Maryland in its first two conference games, is third in the Big Ten in scoring at 80.5 points a game but just 11th in scoring defense at 66.2 points a game.