It wasn't long ago that Michigan State and Illinois shared the lead in the Big Ten.
Though the ninth-ranked Spartans still are in a similar position, the Fighting Illini need another win over a top-10 opponent to realistically avoid falling out of the race.Michigan State can tie for the conference's top spot again with a road victory Tuesday night against an Illinois team that has lost three straight.The Spartans' 81-74 loss at Northwestern on Jan. 14 dropped them to 4-1 in the league and into a first-place tie with the Illini, who were still celebrating a 79-74 home win over then-No. 5 Ohio State four days prior.Michigan State (17-4, 6-2) also lost its next game at Michigan but has since recovered with back-to-back victories, giving coach Tom Izzo the 400th of his career Wednesday with a 68-52 win over Minnesota.Draymond Green finished with 22 points and 14 rebounds for his Big Ten-leading 11th double-double, also adding six assists."He was just unbelievable," said Izzo, whose team would match the Buckeyes atop the standings with a victory Tuesday. "I thought that was one of the better performances a guy has had here."Illinois (15-6, 4-4), meanwhile, has dropped three straight to unranked opponents by a combined 11 points since it knocked off Ohio State, though Izzo still is prepared for a tough contest."Illinois is a couple buckets and a couple plays from leading the league right now," Izzo said. "I'm sure it's going to be a rugged environment when we go there."The Illini were done in Saturday by a questionable foul call on Meyers Leonard in the closing seconds of regulation, leading to the tying three-point play before they eventually fell 77-72 in overtime at Minnesota.Leonard fouled out with 17 points and 13 rebounds, and Brandon Paul scored 22 of his 28 points after halftime."Tough game, obviously," coach Bruce Weber said. "I question the foul, but that's part of basketball."Illinois is likely in for an even tougher test against the Spartans, who have won six of the last eight meetings."We've lost three in a row, now let's see if we can come back and respond with character," Weber said.Hosting another top-10 team should provide the Illini with plenty of motivation.They've won two of their last three such home games, beating then-No. 5 Michigan State 78-73 on Feb. 6, 2010.Illinois also won last season's home meeting with the Spartans, who were then No. 17, as Paul scored 20 points off the bench in a 71-62 victory Jan. 18, 2011.The Spartans look to avoid a third straight loss in Champaign by continuing their efficient shooting. They lead the Big Ten with a 51.3 field goal percentage in conference games."The percentage doesn't go with that we're a great shooting team, it goes with us being a solid shooting team that doesn't take bad shots," Izzo said.Defensively, Michigan State hopes to contain the 7-foot-1 Leonard, who averages 13.4 points and 8.0 rebounds."We're going to have our work cut out for us," Izzo said. "He's a load."Freshman guard Travis Trice is questionable for the Spartans with a strained groin after missing the last game and practicing minimally.The last 13 matchups in this series have been decided by 10 points or fewer, including Michigan State's 61-57 win in the most recent meeting Feb. 19.