EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The fifth ranked team in the nation turned in a mostly uninspired and inconsistent effort in a nine-point loss to an unranked Michigan State squad scrambling for a NCAA tournament berth.
The physical play of the Spartans clearly bothered an Illinois team that found itself committing unforced turnovers, missing point-blank shot attempts and unable to gather key rebounds in a frustrating 81-72 road loss.
"They just punched us in the mouth and we didn't return," Illinois senior guard Trent Frazier said.
Illinois (16-6, 12-4 in Big Ten Conference), which is a team that prides itself on getting out in transition and finishing contested shots near the rim, missed its first 12 layup attempts Tuesday night. Illinois head coach Brad Underwood found himself unable to find a consistent five-man lineup to look consistent on both ends of the floor.
Michigan State (12-9, 6-9), which came into Tuesday night ranked No. 135 in kenpom.com in tempo, outscored the Illini 22-21 on fast break points and the physical play of the Spartans dominated near the rim as Michigan State got 38 points in the paint as Kofi Cockburn sat next to the coaching staff for the final seven minutes of the first half with two fouls.
In his second game at Michigan State’s Breslin Center, Cockburn struggled to get in any kind of rhythm after the 7-foot, 290-pound center missed each of his first two shot attempts and his first pair of free throws.
Similarly to his first trip to East Lansing, Cockburn’s experience in MSU’s arena was less than pleasurable. Last season, Cockburn was plagued with foul trouble and Tuesday night it was the physical contact of MSU’s forwards along with a horrendous night at the foul line that left the Jamaican native shaking his head in disbelief. Cockburn finished with 13 points and six rebounds but was 3 of 11 from the foul line.
Illinois found little success at the foul line as they missed 15 of 34 attempts from the charity stripe as Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo’s defensive philosophy in the second half seemed to be centered around fouling the Illini big whenever possible.
With Cockburn struggling and being forced to watch the final seven minutes and 20 seconds of the first half, fifth-year senior Joshua Langford padded his statistical line with seven points and 10 rebounds before the halftime buzzer. Langford would finish with 13 points and 16 rebounds.
Aaron Henry led the Spartans with 20 points as the junior from Indianapolis has guided what looked like a rudderless MSU squad just a few weeks ago to impressive back-to-back wins.
It had been nearly 14 years (March 6, 2005) before Tuesday night when an Illinois squad had lost to an unranked opponent when they were ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll. The last time was the regular 2005 season finale when the No. 1 Illinois team lost to Ohio State 65-64 in Columbus but went on to play in the national championship game.
Ayo Dosunmu, who is trying to secure the program’s first ever Naismith Player of the Year honor, never found any offensive consistency against an aggressive Spartans defensive effort. Less than 72 hours after producing the program’s fourth triple-double effort, the junior guard finished with 15 points on 5 of 16 shooting and four turnovers.
Illinois will return home Thursday evening for its final game at State Farm Center this season as they host Nebraska for a 6 p.m. tip. Michigan State, which obtained its first win over a Top 10 opponent this season, has NCAA tournament resume-building opportunities against Ohio State and Michigan before the conference tournament.