CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Maybe we should have seen this coming.
After all, neither the Spartans nor the Illini are particularly tough defensive teams. The Spartans aren't their typically vintage selves on the defensive end, and Bruce Weber has struggled to get his young Illinois team to defend like Bruce Weber teams typically defend. The result: Two hot-shooting teams are on display at Assembly Hall Saturday night, and Illinois leads 35-34 at the half.
Both squads cooled down considerably in the last few minutes, giving us our decidedly sane halftime score. The first 11 minutes, however, were anything but. Illinois had 28 points with nine minutes to go in the first half, which would have put them with 56 at the break and 112 for the game. Michigan State wasn't far behind -- the Spartans shot 53 percent from the field, and were at 75 percent from the field at the 10 minute mark.
Why the hot hands? Two different teams and two different reasons: Michigan State was able to find easy buckets on the interior and better looks from mid-range jumpers in transition. (The Spartans were characteristically unwilling to launch the ball from behind the arc -- they had a mere six attempts.) Illinois, on the other hand, wasn't shy from distance, using Weber's typical motion screening style to get open catch-and-shoot looks all over the court.
As for the atmosphere? It's electric, but give the Spartans credit -- each time the Illini faithful have had something to really freak out about, Michigan State has found a way to answer immediately and quiet the crowd. Given the absence of injured star Kalin Lucas, who is sitting on the bench in a black fleece warm-up, MSU has been impressively resilient. That goes for Michigan State's substitutes, too. Tom Izzo has already played 11 men, including little-used reserves Austin Thornton (5.5 minutes per game) and Mike Kebler (2.0 minutes per game). Both have made contributions: Thorton's buzzer beater cut the Illini halftime lead to one and Kebler's spot defense shut down Demetri McCamey on three straight possessions.
Taken as a whole, it's been a great half. The game is up and down, the pace is speedy, the shots are falling, and the crowd is on fire. It's exactly what you'd hope for from Saturday night's College Gameday feature. Let's see if the second half will live up.