Now the season begins for realIllinois plays Michigan State in Champaign tonight (ESPN2, 9 ET) and given what we think we know in early January this is a very big game--perhaps a little too big for coming so soon. Be that as it may, tonight's winning team will surely offer no objections to already having this win safely in their pocket when they wake up on January 6.The Illini, as has been widely noted, have been getting it done this year on the strength of good defense. That being said, the Spartans' offense presents far and away the biggest challenge the Illini have faced. This is one of the nation's five best offenses and, like any offense this good, its strengths are varied enough that no one factor or player carries too much of the weight. To take just one fairly random example: State is a surprisingly good outside shooting team, hitting 42 percent of their threes. And yet Tom Izzo's team rarely shoots threes (only Penn State and Minnesota shoot fewer as a percentage of attempts). They don't need to--they push the tempo, find the match up they like wherever it is on the court, and, often via a Drew Neitzel assist, exploit it.The match up the Spartans like most is often in the paint. Not surprising, surely, given that Paul Davis is one of the best players in the country. His rebounding can only be termed dominant, he scores a lot of points, and he scores them very efficiently. (Why don't I ever hear Davis's name in national POY talk? Just asking!) Illinois hasn't yet had to play the level of post defense that they will need to play tonight. The good news for Illini fans is Bruce Weber has more depth in his frontcourt than Illinois has had in years--that will help the home team tonight.James Augustine is to Paul Davis roughly what Michigan State was to Illinois last year: tremendously talented and performing at an extremely high level, yet a bit overlooked. While Davis is indisputably a better rebounder (duh--Davis is a better rebounder than every player in the Big Ten) and a more potent scoring threat, Augustine is still a crucial element in the Illini's success. Good things tend to happen for Illinois when he gets touches. Augustine's an excellent passer, startlingly quick for a player his size, and makes point-guard quality decisions within Bruce Weber's motion offense.But there'll be plenty to watch outside the paint as well. I'll be interested to see who Brian Randle guards (probably Mo Ager). Illinois fans think Randle is a tremendous talent on D--both long and quick--but it's been hard to know for sure given the Illini's schedule thus far. (Randle made Thomas Gardner look really bad in the Missouri game, this much we know.) That will leave Rich McBride on whomever Randle's not guarding (maybe Shannon Brown, who's hitting 44 percent of his threes).And, of course, the match up between Neitzel and Dee Brown promises to be entertaining. These two have only played against each other once, last February, and Neitzel's come a long way since then. But then Brown's come a long way since November: after a very rocky start running the point, Brown's looked much more comfortable of late. His assists were plentiful even early but in recent games his turnovers are down and his shooting's improved. Between Brown, McBride and freshman PPWS sensation Jamar Smith, Illinois has (Wichita State notwithstanding) usually been able to hit enough threes to get the job done.Bruce Weber's team has done very well this year holding on to the ball, as have Michigan State's opponents on the whole. Those mutually reinforcing tendencies suggest the Illini are likely to give the Spartans very few TOs tonight. If the home team is hitting their shots, then, State's offense will called upon to be as outstanding as they've been all year. On the other hand, if Illinois is firing blanks, the pressure will be on the Illini D to be as strong against Final Four-caliber competition as they've been against their non-conference foes.Let's tip it off.Links Tom Izzo predicts a fast pace: "They're playing a little better than we are defensively right now, and I guarantee you both teams are going to run." Izzo also offers the highest praise to his veteran core of Davis, Ager, and Brown: "They want to win (a championship) more than I do."...Shannon Brown says he likes the tough early schedule that the Big Ten gave the Spartans: "We're just gonna come out and we're gonna fight."...Possibly the best five-word description of Assembly Hall I've yet seen, courtesy of the Lansing State Journal's Joe Rexrode: "Dark, orange and painfully loud." Oracular Illini observer Mark Tupper says never mind its early arrival, this game is a heavyweight bout: "Believe me: Michigan State, Indiana and Illinois all think they’re going to win the Big Ten and make it to the Final Four. That just ratchets up the intensity because nobody wants to lose early, especially when going head-to-head with another of the top three contenders." Rich McBride says how well Illinois plays D against Michigan State's talented scorers will be the key to the game: "We just have to try to keep them in front of us. Shannon and Ager are great players, but if we stick to what we've been doing and trust each other, we should be OK." Bruce Weber says amen to that. "Ager is a quick-up shooter. You have to be there every time he comes off a screen." Neil Milbert of the Chicago Tribune explains Illinois' surprising success (here) and looks at their three near-losses (here). Dee Brown still has an Izzone-created sign that Luther Head found in the Breslin Center after last year's game. It reads: "S. BROWN OWNS D. BROWN." (This just in: Dee Brown and Shannon Brown were high school teammates! Who knew!)BONUS year-in-pictures note! Illinois fans looking for an outstanding photographic retrospective of last year's historic season can link here and enjoy a spectacle that is at once celebratory and yet admirably even-handed (including as it does images of Matt Sylvester and the damage done). In today's less Wonk-ish venues.... Northwestern beat Purdue 66-53 last night in Evanston in a very slow game. Both teams shot quite well (hitting a combined 15-of-36 threes--including, go figure, a 3-of-5 from Matt Kiefer) but the Boilers coughed up 19 turnovers, which, in a game with only 55 possessions, is even worse than it sounds. In effect, Matt Painter's team gave away one out of every three possessions. Vedran Vukusic led the Wildcats with 28 points, only six of which, surprisingly, came from threes. Tim Doyle added a career-high 20. Purdue freshman Nate Minnoy suffered a knee injury just three minutes into the game and did not return. No word yet on the extent of his injury. (Ye gods. Painter's due for a good break. Several, in fact.) (Box score.)Wisconsin plays Iowa tonight in Madison. Canonical blogger Ryan Kobliska has, thank goodness, ended his holiday hiatus just in time to give us a customarily outstanding preview--make haste! As for MSM fare....Hawkeye coach Steve Alford says the Badgers' height will be a challenge: "They are extremely big. They start big; their bench is big. So we've got to do a good job on the boards. We can't be giving them second shots. They are hard enough to guard the way it is." But Bo Ryan says his team's height is young: "Iowa has a lot more experience (than Wisconsin) on the floor from last year." As for his own squad: "All you can do is give them the opportunities in practice and in games to become more accustomed to what is going on in a system and then you hope when it comes game time that they mimic that." More on the Badger bench here.Ohio State plays Penn State in Columbus tonight. PSU's Geary Claxton says he and his mates know what they're up against on the road in the Big Ten. "It's a rough league. You have to keep your heads in it and just play your game. We have to work as a team to get through it."Minnesota is battling the flu bug and Dan Monson is fretful: "It's definitely contagious." The Gophers open Big Ten play Saturday at home against Northwestern.Yay conference!In one of his periodic stellar contributions to ESPN.com, Jeff Shelman says the Big Ten is back, baybee!Wonk back! Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me! Treachery most foul? Wonk,Thanks for the wonderful blog. I read it daily. I selfishly hope I don't lose you to ESPN or some other MSM outlet like I did with Kyle and Ken. Can't say I blame them, though.I wasn't able to see the Michigan/Indiana game, but from the box score it seemed the biggest discrepancy was the foul shooting. Indiana took 25 FTs and Michigan took five! The Wolverines were outscored by 12 at the line and lost by seven. I guess that's how you manage to lose a game even though you outrebounded your opponent by 11 and took and made more FGs. Sure, Michigan's 22 turnovers are ugly, but they made up for that by grabbing extra possessions on the offensive glass (17 of 36 possible). Again, I didn't see the game, but I would think a Michigan fan (I am not one) may have had something to say about the officiating. Was this noticeable during the game?Thanks and keep up the good work.Matt T.This observer, for one, didn't see injustices that were more numerous or egregious than the norm. Remember that, blessed as they are with depth in the frontcourt, Michigan is constitutionally less foul-averse than your garden variety squad. And 11 of those Hoosier FTAs were from Killingsworth alone. As for Wolverine FTAs, well, maybe if Sims had recorded more than four FGAs there would have been some.By the way, your reference to 17 of a possible 36 offensive boards leads me to geek a little on the salacious and exciting sweeps-weeks topic of box scores. Every now and then I hear from an alert reader who says they've done some micro-wonking on their own but that their PPP numbers aren't the same as mine. My message to them is: insist on official box scores, like this one for the Michigan-Indiana game. The key difference between an official box score and one like this is as follows: official box scores take "team rebounds" (those not credited to an individual player) and break them down into offensive and defensive boards. So we learn that the Wolverines actually had 19 orebs out of a possible 38. Anyway, thanks for the kind words, Matt.