Friday , Mar , 10 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

Illini and Spartans meet in Big Ten quarterfinals

(Sports Network) – As the defending Big Ten Conference Tournament
champions, the ninth-ranked Fighting Illini of Illinois try to improve
upon the best team record in the history of the event as they challenge
sixth-seeded Michigan State tonight in the quarterfinals from Conseco
Fieldhouse. Illinois, which is 16-6 through the first eight Big Ten
Tournaments, defeated Wisconsin last season (54-43) for the title and also
posted a 72-59 decision over Ohio State in 2003 for the first of its two
crowns. In between, the Illini lost to the Badgers in 2004’s edition,
70-53. This season the third-seeded Illini were undefeated in five neutral
site contests and finished up 11-5 in league play thanks to a victory over
this same MSU program in the regular-season finale.

As for the Spartans, they had to play in the opening round of this tournament
after posting an 8-8 league record in 2005-06, which meant beating 11th-seeded
Purdue yesterday, 70-58. Like Illinois, the Spartans also have two titles to
their credit, with wins in 1999 and 2000, both of which came against the
Illini by double digits. Illinois won the most recent meeting between the two
teams just six days ago with a 75-68 victory at the Breslin Center. As a
result, the Illini now hold a 52-47 edge in the all-time series with the
Spartans. The winner of this meeting will take on the winner of the
Minnesota/Iowa contest in the semifinals on Saturday afternoon.

Limiting the Boilermakers to just 1-of-8 shooting from three-point range in
the first half, Michigan State gave itself just enough room to breathe as it
entered the second frame ahead by five points. After the break, Purdue was
again held to just 11 field goals and faltered at the foul line (9-of-15), as
the Spartans ran way with the 12-point decision. Except for Drew Neitzel, who
tallied a mere six points, every starter for MSU hit for double figures,
beginning with Maurice Ager who posted 20 points and six rebounds. Goran Suton
produced a personal high with 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field,
while Paul Davis and Shannon Brown both chipped in 11 points and combined for
13 rebounds and four steals. MSU, which held a 38-29 edge on the glass and
survived 12 turnovers on the evening, converted 19-of-26 attempts at the free-
throw line, making it easier for the group to compete with only eight shots
being taken from three-point range, of which three fell through.

Illinois was far from an overwhelming offensive force this season, finishing
in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten with 70.4 ppg. Where the squad was
sure to shine however, was defensively, limiting opponents to a league-best 58
ppg. The team tied Ohio State for the largest scoring margin in the Big Ten at
+12.4 ppg, which is rather surprising considering the team that finished as
the runner-up in the NCAA Tournament last year, finished 2005-06 ranked dead
last in the league in free-throw shooting at just 63.6 percent. The squad did
finish second in field goal shooting defense (.401) and was first in
preventing three-point conversions (.308). Except for Warren Carter who had
one start this year, the Illini managed to run with the same starting lineup
for every game, making the squad that much more familiar with each other after
losing vital parts from last year. Dee Brown led the way with 14.7 ppg,
handing out 5.6 apg as well, but he shot only 37.1 percent from the field and
often took it upon himself to create a shot rather than trust in his
teammates. James Augustine added 13.4 ppg and was first on the glass with 9.1