The Michigan State Spartans are running out of time to get on track, but an opportunity comes with a Thursday night contest against the Illinois Fighting Illini.
TV Schedule: Thursday, January 11, 9:00 PM ET, FS1
Location: State Farm Center in Champaign, IL
The Illinois Fighting Illini and Michigan State Spartans are both facing adversity right now, for very different reasons. A meeting in Champaign on Thursday night should hint at what direction each is headed in for the next two months.
For Michigan State, the spiral has been spinning since the start of the season. The Spartans entered the season with Final Four hopes, only to immediately take a home loss to James Madison to start the campaign. Michigan State is now just 9-6 and a pitiful 1-3 in Big Ten play, the lone win coming at home against Penn State.
Tom Izzo hasn't missed an NCAA Tournament since 1997. The tourney odds are still on the Spartans' side due to their ridiculous schedule so far, but the analytics could flip if Michigan State doesn't start winning.
Illinois, meanwhile, climbed up the rankings and currently checks in at No. 10 in the country. The squad only has three losses and none worth crying about: Marquette, Tennessee, and Purdue all beat the Fighting Illini in single-digit deficits.
But everything changed two weeks ago when star Terrence Shannon Jr. was arrested on a rape charge. He's not with the team as the legal process unfolds and it's hard to envision him coming back to the team.
Since Shannon's exodus, the Illini are 2-1, with dominating wins over Fairleigh Dickinson and Northwestern and a close defeat at Purdue. Brad Underwood's squad is proving to be resilient to the off-court noise.
Illinois has won its last three contests against the Spartans. In fact, if the Fighting Illini win on Thursday, the two programs will even up their head-to-head win total at 64 apiece.
Michigan State doesn't lack for motivation entering this game, though. During the post-game press conference following the Northwestern loss, senior guard A.J. Hoggard labeled the Illinois contest a "must-win" game.
Hoggard and his teammates know the scrutiny will only increase if the Spartans start 1-4 in Big Ten play. In a gutsy effort on the road, they avoid that fate.
Prediction: Michigan State 75, Illinois 71