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January 31, 2013

Illinois-Michigan St. Preview

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- - Michigan State coach Tom Izzo often lamented what his team lacked when it won 17 of its first 20 games.

After the Spartans lost by five points at then-No. 7 Indiana on Sunday, Izzo was more encouraged than discouraged.

And, he even said the team has a chance to go from good to great.

"That is one thing I would've taken out of that game," Izzo said. "That was a pretty good basketball game to watch. I liked our competitive attitude.

"We had a couple inside guys play good and one outside play well. If we can get it to two and two, we have a chance to get even better."

The Spartans (17-4, 6-2 Big Ten) stayed at No. 13 in The Associated Press' poll this week, and they host Illinois (15-6, 2-5) on Thursday night in their only game during a nine-day stretch.

Izzo gave his players a "mental day" on Monday by having them only watch film, plans to give them Friday off and perhaps dedicate a day next week to working on individual skills before preparing to host No. 23 Minnesota next Wednesday.

"I think this break will be perfect," he said.

Even though the Fighting Illini have slumped, Izzo hopes the Spartans realize they are playing a team that was talented enough to post double-digit wins over Ohio State, Gonzaga and Butler - all currently ranked in the top 11.

"We're in for a dangerous week," Izzo said.

In Sunday's 75-70 loss to the Hoosiers, Michigan State post players Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix were dominant at times and freshman guard Gary Harris perhaps played his best game. They helped the Spartans have a shot to win - trailing by two points late in the game - despite leading scorer Keith Appling being on the bench with five fouls and two points.

Payne had 18 points, nine rebounds, blocked a shot and had a steal. Nix scored eight points, made a game-high six assists, grabbed five rebounds and had two steals.

Harris scored 21 points - one short of his season high - and made five 3-pointers while playing sound defensively.

"Gary Harris took a major step again," Izzo said.

Branden Dawson contributed 12 points and eight rebounds, and even though that was a solid performance from a sophomore less than a year removed from major knee surgery, Izzo said the forward will prove to be one of a few pivotal players this season.

"For us to go from good to great, (Dawson) has to keep taking steps," Izzo said. "I think Denzel (Valentine) and Travis (Trice) are very important parts. We can't do it with four or five players."

Izzo said Michigan and Indiana are definitely better than every other team in the conference, and Illinois found that to be true Sunday.

The Illini lost for the fourth time in five games, 74-60 at home to a Wolverines squad that took over the top spot in the poll Monday.

Brandon Paul led Illinois with 15 points but had five of the team's 15 costly turnovers. The Illini shot 37.1 percent and are at 39.3 in league play after making 44.5 percent of their attempts in opening 13-1.

"Biggest thing that we've got to do is understand that when things aren't going well for us on the offensive end, you cannot tie your mindset to that mentally, especially on the defensive end," first-year Illinois coach John Groce said.

"... We've got to get a little tougher mentally. We'll take a look at the film and address some of those things. ... Heading into the game at Michigan State, just keep trying to get a little bit better every day."

Michigan State has lost three of four in this series, with all the defeats coming at Illinois. The Spartans have won five straight matchups at home, holding the Illini to an average of 55.0 points on 36.3 percent shooting.



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