Illinois drops No. 9 Michigan State as Spartans continue Big Ten freefall

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Illinois pulled off a major upset in the Big Ten on Tuesday night as they took down No. 9 Michigan State with a 79-74 home win.

Leading for nearly the entire game before the Spartans rallied with a furious second-half comeback, Illinois stabilized in the final minutes behind a strong effort from freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu. Dosunmu’s clutch shooting down the stretch helped give him a game-high 24 points as the quickly-rising NBA Draft prospect showed why the Illini are such a dangerous team despite the 8-15 record. Big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili also chipped in 16 points for Illinois while guard Trent Frazier had 15 points and some solid late-game free-throw shooting.

But for as nice as this win is for Illinois, the loss for Michigan State is the biggest story from this game.

Now with a three-game Big Ten losing streak, the Spartans are in a mid-conference season funk as they’ve gone from leaders in the conference to now being in the second tier of teams. And Michigan State keeps losing in unique ways. Purdue is a solid team who outplayed the Spartans. But the loss to Indiana featured a horrible 8-for-22 performance from the free-throw line in a tight overtime home loss.

Against Illinois, Michigan State had 24 turnovers — including nine from point guard and Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Cassius Winston — as they looked like a team who hadn’t seen ball pressure and traps regularly this season. Winston made slow and sloppy decisions in the first half as he glided baseline into traps and threw less-than crisp passes that sailed to Illinois defenders.

Finishing with a team-high 21 points and nine assists, Winston was far from the only problem for Michigan State in this one. The Spartans had a difficult time getting stops at certain times and their transition defense also struggled once the onslaught of turnovers began to pile up.

Finding a second consistent option behind Winston now that Josh Langford is officially done for the year hasn’t proven to be easy as well. Shot-taking options outside of Winston aren’t readily available for the Spartans. Many have stepped up with double-figure scoring games. Xavier Tillman (16 points), Nick Ward (11 points) and Kyle Ahrens (11 points) all helped Winston chip in during Tuesday’s loss. But none one of them attempted more than seven shots as much of the scoring burden fell on Winston.

Since none of Michigan State’s other guys can really create their own shot, it falls on Winston to create shots for himself and everyone else. Ward and Tillman need classic back-to-the-basket post touches while Ahrens, Kyle Goins, Matt McQuaid and others need a pass from Winston to set them up.

Illinois snuffing Winston with doubles and traps is likely what the Michigan State offense is going to see until they figure out a way to make things easier on their point guard. And that doesn’t even include the Spartans lacking a true backup point guard option they can trust so Winston can take some minutes on the bench. With turnover issues, free-throw woes and inconsistent shooting nights, Michigan State suddenly doesn’t look like a Big Ten favorite as they need to make some adjustments to figure things out.

Tom Izzo-coached teams have a history of playing their best ball down the stretch before the postseason begins. However, it’s now February and Michigan State still has intriguing identity issues with the loss of Langford as they try to fix their inconsistent play.