Michigan State’s season of misery took a sharp and shocking turn for the better Tuesday night when the Spartans upset No. 5 Illinois 81-72. The victory is far and away the best this year for the Spartans (12-9, 6-9 Big Ten), who looked much more like the team that was once ranked No. 4 in the nation in December than the one that entered Tuesday’s contest ranked No. 81 in the NET.
The win brings Michigan State’s record in Quad 1 games to 3-8 but this one stands out above its other two Quad 1 victories against Duke and Indiana, who are both on the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Illini, by contrast, entered the night as a projected No. 2 seed in Jerry Palm’s latest Bracketology and hoping to stay in contention for the Big Ten regular-season title.
Illinois (16-6, 12-4) will remain on the projected No. 2 seed line even after the loss, but the game’s real impact will be on the Spartans, who are now considered a bubble team, according to Palm. Michigan State still has work to do to make the field of 68 but has several more resume-building opportunities ahead as it is scheduled to face Ohio State, Maryland, Indiana and Michigan twice to close the regular season. The Spartans’ résumé is better than Duke’s, which joined the Bubble watch after beating Syracuse on Monday
Tuesday night’s formula of success for the Spartans featured a heavy dose of ball movement and attacking the basket. Michigan State made just 4-of-8 3-pointers but got a combined 48 points from wings Aaron Henry, Joshua Langford and Rocket Watts, who found success attacking the basket — even against Illinois’ imposing center Kofi Cockburn. The Illini’s seven-footer did not pick up a block in the game.
The game will also have an impact on Michigan’s bid for the regular-season league title. Illinois was shaping up to be the Wolverines’ top competitor in the title race. Though Illinois will remain in second place in the league standings after the loss, it now has three more defeats on its ledger than Michigan, which is 16-1 (11-1 Big Ten).