Champaign, Ill. — Michigan State was set to get Thomas Kithier back on Tuesday night against Illinois, and it couldn’t come at a better time.
The sophomore has been sick and missed the last two games, but as the Spartans were prepared to face one of the biggest teams in the Big Ten, getting some help on the frontcourt is critical.
“Kithier's back and I think I don't know if that'll help us in this game, but it'll help us as we go,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
Frontcourt depth hasn’t been a strength for the Spartans (16-8, 8-5 Big Ten) this season.
Outside of junior center Xavier Tillman, who played 37 minutes at Michigan on Saturday, the rest of the big men have represented a revolving door of options. Kithier started the first six games of the season before being replaced by sophomore Marcus Bingham. Bingham started 14 straight games, giving way to freshman Malik Hall the past five games. Freshman Julius Marble also has been seeing regular playing time.
While the starting lineup likely will stay the same, who steps up against Illinois’ pair of big men — 7-foot freshman Kofi Cockburn and 6-9 sophomore Giorgi Bezhanishvili — remains to be seen.
“We’re about to play one of the biggest teams in the league,” Izzo said.
The Spartans fared well in the first meeting — a 76-56 victory on Jan. 2 — as Cockburn and Bezhanishvili combined for 11 points on 5-for-22 shooting. Bingham’s length bothered Cockburn while Tillman’s consistency played a key role, as it does on most nights.
Getting that every game the rest of the way from Tillman is a good bet, but there’s no telling if he’ll be at every game. Tillman’s wife, Tamia, is expecting the couple’s second child soon and Tillman intends to be there, no matter where the team is scheduled to play.
With three more road games down the stretch, that could cause some logistical issues as Michigan State tries to stay in the Big Ten race with every game over the next couple of weeks critical. There’s a chance the delivery could be scheduled during a break between games, but that hasn’t happened and Izzo said that won’t be his decision.
“That one’s out of my hands,” Izzo said. “I’ll have a game plan for him, but I’m not involved in you know, I won’t be involved in the delivery process and I won’t be involved in anything but trying to help Xavier to cope and move forward. But he’s handling it very well.”