Illinois vs. Michigan State: Why Spartans Are Sitting Pretty in Big Ten Race

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Illinois vs. Michigan State: Why Spartans Are Sitting Pretty in Big Ten Race
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
The Spartans overcame a desperate Illinois team on Thursday.

Michigan State still trails a pair of rivals atop the Big Ten conference totem pole, but things are looking up in East Lansing. The Spartans have reeled off seven victories in the past eight games, drawing even in the conference win column with Michigan and Indiana.  

Tom Izzo is finding production from various corners of his roster, as evidenced by a balanced scoring attack Thursday night against Illinois. Behind a 24-point effort by guard Keith Appling, Michigan State (18-4, 7-2) shook off a desperate Illini squad, 80-75, and remained perfect on its home court this season (13-0). 

Appling scored 19 points in the second half to fuel a strong Spartans finish.

The Spartans' youngsters continue to show signs of finding their footing during the team's most pivotal stretch of the season. Freshmen Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris combined to score 28 points in the latest mettle-testing Michigan State victory.

Emerging sophomore guard Braden Dawson continues to give the Spartans an added dimension. He tallied 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting against Illinois and is averaging 14 points per contest since Jan. 22.

Izzo always seems to do a tremendous job of developing a deep rotation. It comes in handy in March, when injuries and foul trouble can cripple a thin lineup.

No, this Spartans squad isn't stampeding over opponents on a routine basis, but then again what team is these days?

Five of Michigan State's last six wins were decided by a single-digit margin. The Spartans squeaked out a pair of three-point victories over Iowa and Ohio State, while edging Wisconsin 49-47 in Madison.

The series of stress-packed, highly competitive conference clashes should serve Michigan State well heading into the Big Ten tournament and eventually the NCAA tournament. After all, every team wants to be considered "battle-tested" by the time March Madness rolls around. 

The Spartans upcoming schedule provides an opportunity for Izzo's squad to assert itself as a Big Ten title front-runner. If Michigan State develops momentum during a defining run down the stretch, it could also make a strong case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

This team is in charge of its own conference destiny.

Michigan State sits idle until Feb. 6, when it hosts Minnesota (16-5, 4-4) with a chance to exact revenge. The Gophers prevailed when these two teams met earlier in the season, a 76-63 game that opened conference play.

Minnesota has lost four of its last five contests, slipping into a sixth-place tie in conference standings. The Spartans have six days to prepare for the rematch, while the Gophers face Iowa on Sunday afternoon.

Michigan State has won its share of close games, including this victory over Ohio State.

The following three weeks include an interesting set of Spartans storylines, highlighted by a two showdowns with top-ranked Michigan. The Wolverines visit East Lansing on Feb. 12 before Michigan State returns the favor with a trip to Ann Arbor on March 2. 

Those two games could ultimately determine which team represents its state as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. At the very least, the matchups will have an immense impact on the Big Ten regular season championship chase. 

Another Big Ten battle for Sparty faithful to circle on their calenders is a Feb. 19 home encounter against Indiana. The Hoosiers, currently ranked third in the nation, handed Michigan State its second conference loss of the season last Sunday. 

Indiana edged the Spartans 75-70 and stymied Appling, who fouled out with 5:17 remaining in the game. The Michigan State catalyst registered season lows in points (3) and field goal attempts (4).

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Point guard Keith Appling has kept Michigan State on track.

Appling rebounded from that woeful performance with a highly efficient night against Illinois (24 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists). The junior set individual season-highs in points and rebounds, so it's safe to say there are no lingering effects after the Indiana loss.

Illinois coach John Groce acknowledged the impact Appling has had in shaping the identity of this Spartans squad.

"He was the best player on the floor," Groce told the Associated Press via ESPN.com. "He did a great job of making his teammates better. He has a swagger about him that ultimately gives them swagger and confidence."

Michigan State has a legitimate leader in place at point guard, close game credibility and a February schedule filled with valuable opportunities to flex its muscles against conference rivals. What more can you ask for through 13 weeks of the season?

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