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Michigan State looks to avoid 1-4 Big Ten start as it faces No. 10 Illinois

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Michigan State is in danger of descending to a place the Spartans have never been during Tom Izzo’s 29 years as head coach.

If the Spartans (9-6, 1-3 Big Ten) can’t recover from Sunday’s 14-point loss at Northwestern and they fall again Thursday night in Champaign at No. 10 Illinois (11-3, 2-1), they’ll be off to their first 1-4 start in Big Ten play since 1989, when Izzo served as Jud Heathcote’s top assistant.

That’s not what anyone had in mind when Michigan State opened the season at No. 4 in The Associated Press’ Top 25 poll — yet here we are, and there was Izzo going scorched earth in Evanston, Ill., following Sunday’s loss.

On Tuesday, roughly 36 hours after fuming about analytics in the wake of Northwestern out-toughing his team, Izzo tried to explain his beef isn’t with analytics per se.

“It’s (that) you can’t analyze heart,” he said. “You can’t analyze toughness. You can’t analyze what you see in a guy’s eyes when he comes out there in a game. … I guess those are more what I was talking about than the exact numbers.

“My way is, ‘Give me a tough guy who can play over an analytics guy,’ if that makes any sense.”

That makes sense to Illinois coach Brad Underwood, who enjoys citing all types of metrics but is particularly smitten with his team this season because of its toughness and togetherness.

Two weeks ago, All America-caliber wing Terrence Shannon Jr. was suspended indefinitely from the team after being charged with rape in Kansas. Instead of foundering, the Illini have carried on.

They pounded Fairleigh Dickinson and Northwestern before rallying from a 21-point deficit at No. 1 Purdue to get within three in the final minute before falling by five on Friday. Grad transfer Marcus Domask took over as Illinois’ alpha and totaled 58 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds against the Boilermakers and Wildcats to earn Big Ten Player of the Week honors.

When the Illini have needed a basket in Shannon’s absence, Underwood will send four players to the left side of the floor and let the 6-foot-6, 215-pound Domask use his size to back down a defender on the right side. Many of his 20 second-half points against Purdue came on “booty ball,” as Underwood calls it.

“I hope everybody understands how good a player Marcus Domask is,” Underwood said. “I can’t remember the last time I played a player 40 minutes. He’s one of the best-conditioned athletes I’ve ever coached — and we ask a lot of him.”

Perhaps A.J. Hoggard, the Spartans’ biggest perimeter player at 6-4, 210 pounds, will draw the assignment of slowing Domask.

“Defensively, we’re working on a lot of different things to try to do a better job with smaller guards,” Izzo said. “That’s been a little bit of a challenge. They’re playing a little more ‘bully ball,’ as I call it, where they’re just backing you down, so there’s some things we’re going to do to combat that.”

Domask might not remain Illinois’ alpha much longer. Mark Goldenberg, one of Shannon’s attorneys, filed a temporary restraining order (TRO) against Illinois on Monday to allow the 21.7-points-per-game scorer to return to the court while awaiting his preliminary hearing on Jan. 18.

The school responded Tuesday by filing a notice of removal, which would move the TRO petition from Champaign County Court to the U.S. District Court and theoretically make it more difficult to obtain a ruling in time for Thursday’s game.

–Field Level Media

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