- Scott Powers, Reporter
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Illinois junior center Mike Tisdale was on a roll heading into the Illini's matchup with Michigan State in January.
Two games before meeting the Spartans, he put up 27 points and nine rebounds against Indiana. He followed it up with one of the more dominant performances of his career when he went for 16 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks in a win over Penn State.
Tisdale was primed for another big game, which Illinois would need if it were to challenge the highly ranked, athletic Spartans.
But Tisdale and the Illini fell short.
Michigan State won by 10 points while exposing a major weakness in Tisdale's game: a tendency to pick up cheap fouls. Tisdale played just 19 minutes and finished with two points, zero rebounds, zero blocks and four fouls. Purdue saw what Michigan State had done, and a game later, Tisdale scored four points and fouled out in 20 minutes in a loss to the Boilermakers.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber was forced to slam on the brakes.
The Illini just weren't the same team with the 7-foot-1, 235-pound Tisdale on the bench. Five of Illinois' eight losses have come when he has played less than 25 minutes. Weber realized that if his team was going to make a push for an NCAA tournament bid, it needed Tisdale's offensive and defensive interior presence.
Lately, the Illini have been getting that again. Since the loss to Purdue, Tisdale has made a concentrated effort to stay on the court. He's kept his frustration in check when an opponent isn't called for what Tisdale has perceived to be a foul. He's focused on playing better one-on-one defense and is not trying to block everything. He's also played smarter on the offensive end.
"He went through some frustration there, and now we hope he's through that and he's learned how the game can be called," Weber said.
So here is Tisdale again. After playing four consecutive games of 30 or more minutes while averaging 12.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, Tisdale and the Illini will get a rematch with Michigan State on Saturday.
Will it be redemption time for Tisdale, or will the Spartans have his number again?
"I've been trying to not to make silly plays," Tisdale said. "It was frustrating. Obviously you know stuff happens, and you can't make silly plays and compound them. Hopefully, it's changed since then.
"Obviously, we need this win. To me, it's important. It's a huge game for us."
With a win, Illinois would move to within one game of Michigan State for first place in the Big Ten and would be much closer to solidifying that NCAA tournament ticket. Illinois is 7-3 in the conference, 15-8 overall.
Weber knows the importance of a win over Michigan State, and he says Tisdale's play will help determine whether that happens.
"We have struggled at times [against Michigan State], and we need him to score," Weber said. "We need to get him the ball in position. It would be nice if he can score or get to the free-throw line. The other part is he is big. He is taller than Michigan State's guys. If he can come from the weak side, he can be a shot-blocker or make it tough on them getting the ball inside, which they're very good at."
What Weber doesn't want to see is Tisdale becoming too passive. At times in Tisdale's past four games, he has allowed easy baskets because he doesn't want to be called for a foul.
"We need him on the court, but he can't be timid, either, and avoid fouls," Weber said. "That doesn't do us any good, either. He needs to hold his base, be strong and not give ground on people."
Overall, Weber has seen Tisdale take major steps in his game since his freshman year. His scoring, rebounding, blocked shots, and free-throw and field goal percentages have improved every season. He's averaging 11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks and has shot .827 from the line and .527 from the field this season.
Weber's one complaint has been Tisdale's inconsistencies. He's had games like the one against Northwestern in December when he went off for 31 points, but he's also had performances like the one against Gonzaga when he played 11 minutes, scored four points and fouled out.
"I'm not where I need to be," Tisdale said. "I don't think you can be content. Improvement is a big thing for me. Strength is important for me. I need to make smarter plays."
Tisdale is looking forward to the opportunity of performing his best with ESPN's "College GameDay" in Champaign on Saturday.
"Anytime you got the biggest national stage for college basketball in your gym, it's going to be exciting," Tisdale said. "This is definitely one of the biggest games I'm going to play in."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illinois' success this season has hinged on the performance of center Mike Tisdale.