Two months ago, Illinois turned out could-this-really-be-happening moments with victories against Butler and Gonzaga. Those wins now seem like they happened to another team in another era.
Michigan State looked at the start of the season like it was finally having a down year, losing to Connecticut and Miami and struggling against Boise State and Louisiana-Lafayette.
Both Big Ten teams have reversed course, but the Illini (15-6, 2-5) will try to join the No. 13 Spartans (17-4, 6-2) on an upward journey with an upset tonight in East Lansing, Mich.
The difference for Illinois?
“Shot-making,” coach John Groce said. “We probably had more defensive miscues [earlier in the season] than in the last several weeks. We overcame some of those things because we were making shots at such a high level.”
Illinois once led the nation in 3-point shooting.
In Big Ten play, the Illini have hit 40 percent only twice: 48.3 against Ohio State and 45.3 at Nebraska, both victories.
In their five conference losses, the Illini have shot 36.3 percent overall and 23 percent on 3-pointers.
“We can play better than where we’re playing right now,” Groce said. “That should happen when you have a good attitude.”
As in most seasons, coach Tom Izzo’s team has improved with every flip of the calendar.
“They are hitting their stride,” Groce said of the Spartans, who have won six of seven and nearly knocked off Indiana on Sunday.
The Spartans’ size especially concerns Groce. Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix turned in dominant performances in the post against the Hoosiers.
Groce has seen reasons to feel confident in his big men lately.
Center Nnanna Egwu is coming off back-to-back 10-rebound games, while forward Sam McLaurin has had a solid three-game stretch, averaging 5 points and 6.7 points.
“They’ve gotten a lot better,” Groce said. “We’re getting it inside more. They’re sealing better. Their passing is better. They’ve given us a presence on the glass. ... We’ve definitely seen a lot of improvement.”
That’s something the Illini would like to say as a team after tonight.
Illinois (15-6, 2-5 Big Ten) at Michigan State (17-4, 6-2)
When: 6 p.m. tonight
Where: East Lansing, Mich.
Line: Spartans by 9½