The University of Illinois gave Keith Appling and the #13 Michigan State Spartans all they could handle at the Breslin Center on Thursday night. However the Spartans braved adversity and stayed in the lead behind a strong performance by Appling (28 pts, 7 assists) and clutch foul shooting down the stretch by his teammates. Illinois tried several times to stage a comeback in the 2nd half but each time the Spartans answered by making a clutch shot or drawing a key foul. Playing with a short bench, Tom Izzo slowed the game to a crawl preventing Illinois from running the floor and saving the legs of his players.
This game demonstrates why the Spartans are the best in the Big Ten. Faced with injuries and adversity they stayed within themselves. As Illinois closed the gap, you could hear the Breslin faithful holding their breath waiting for the other size 13 sneaker to drop on the collective heads of the Izzone. But the shoe didn’t drop. The melt down didn’t come. And the Spartans slowly and calmly ripped the hearts out of the Illini with the patience and precision of Hannibal Lector.
It is fun to watch a veteran team finish. To watch a team that has been through the fire and made their mistakes close a game like they should. The big test is yet to come as every game counts down to February 12th. Then the Spartans will exchange valentines with the Wolverines on the floor of the Breslin Center. A test the Spartans should pass with flying colors if they can continue to finish games like this.
Don’t get me wrong, U of M is talented but in college basketball there is a lot to be said for the experience that comes with bright lights. MSU has been in the spotlight for more than ten years now and the Wolverines have been lucky to find a flashlight in the hall closet. The upstart squad from Ann Arbor can run the floor and they play with a heart the size of Lake Superior. But if U of M wants to take that spotlight away from Izzo and the Spartans they will have to beat them on their home court in front of a rabid crowd desperate to maintain the basketball dominance they have enjoyed over the last decade. This type of test and adversity is something the young Wolverines have yet to experience. It is this factor that will determine the winner of the game on February 12th and possibly the Big Ten Conference.
All of this is great for the “state” of Michigan basketball. Both teams are recruiting well and the excellence should continue for both programs. It may be too early to proclaim the great lakes state the best in college hoop nation. That said both programs seem set for national dominance and regardless of what color you bleed, you have to admit, it is great to see two Michigan teams on top of the basketball world