|No. 9 Michigan State starts road test at Illinois|
Michigan State built its record with a mix of home and neutral-site games. If the Spartans want to pass Ohio State and Purdue in the Big Ten standings, they'll have to do it the hard way.
The No. 9 Spartans, who have only played two true road games, finish the regular-season schedule with seven of their last 11 games in hostile environments. That stretch begins against struggling Illinois on Monday night.
"You've never seen anything like that, have you? Where seven of the last 11 are on the road?" Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "Our job is to get better every day so we can handle the road."
The Buckeyes and Boilermakers are undefeated in conference play and tied atop the standings at 8-0. The Spartans (17-3, 5-2 Big Ten) sit in third place. They went through a rough patch, losing to Ohio State and Michigan and defeating Rutgers in overtime, but seemed to regain their footing on Friday. They blew out Indiana 85-57 behind their star, sophomore forward Miles Bridges, who scored 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting.
"He was just more aggressive, he was hitting all of his shots in the lane, pulling up off two feet," Izzo said. "Things that I think he can do because he's so explosive. Yet he exploded to the rim. He showed a variety of his stuff."
The Spartans, who were ranked No. 1 just over two weeks ago, looked like a powerhouse again. They led by as many as 23 points in the first half while posting their 16th double-digit victory.
"It feels great, because we haven't been playing like ourselves," Bridges said. "Once we got the ball moving, playing great defense, got some rebounds, we were able to get going."
Now, they'll have to make up ground without much crowd support.
"We were never worried," point guard Cassius Winston said. "We had a week of practice, got back to our roots, and now we're ready to go and make this strong push."
Illinois (10-10, 0-7) is the only Big Ten team without a conference victory. The Illini have lost five straight but have been competitive in most games. The exception came on Thursday, when they were dominated by Wisconsin 75-50.
"For the first time all year, I didn't feel good going into our locker room about the effort that our guys put forward," coach Brad Underwood said. "That's something I take a tremendous amount of pride in."
Wisconsin shot 53.1 percent while Illinois scored just 18 second-half points and made only one 3-pointer.
"Seems like every time we kind of felt good about something they'd bank in a three at the end of the shot clock," Underwood said. "It was one of those nights. I'm not going to make excuses. They were a much better basketball team than we were (Thursday)."
Junior forward Leron Black leads the Illini in scoring at 14.5 points per game. Long-range shooting has been a major issue in conference games, as they have only made 26.5 percent of their 3-point attempts.