Penn State Travels To Illinois (Maybe)

Penn State is supposed to take on No. 24 Illinois in an important conference road game tonight at 9:00 in Champaign, but...

Flying charter planes around the Midwest is no picnic in the best weather but in winter it can be hell. That's the lot of a Big Ten basketball team, though. And sooner or later, everyone has a horror story to tell.

The Penn State Nittany Lions will have one after their trip for Tuesday night's scheduled 9 p.m. EST tip at Illinois. Their Delta charter plane circled over Champaign for about 20 minutes, according to PSU basketball sports information director Brian Siegrist, before the pilot decided a landing at the Univ. of Illinois' airport in a raging ice storm was impossible. So he diverted 200 miles south-southeast to Evansville, Ind., where the plane just landed about 45 minutes ago (8:30 EST).

And your Champaign forecast for the day, courtosey of the fine folks at Weather.com? Champaign_weather_medium

As of my writing this at oh, let's call it midnight this morning, they're expecting 14 or so inches of snow in the next 24 hours, excluding whatever icing may rain down upon the town. Needless to say, Penn State is going to have to pull of something of a miracle to get there for this game. It'll certainly make for a good story, but for now, all we can do is wait and see. Safe travels, boys.

UPDATE: Stretch says the boys are rollin'

Stretchtweet_medium

In case there is basketball, though, let's set this sucker up.

Obviously, the big hole in Penn State's resume now, after beating its third ranked team of the season Saturday in a 56-52 win against No. 15 Wisconsin, is a signature road win. The Nittany Lions came close against then-No. 13 Purdue and then-No. 2 Ohio State, but fell short late both times.

Illinois (14-7, 4-4) might represent a better opportunity, though. The Fighting Illini have lost four of their last five games. Last time out, Indiana took Bruce Weber's squad down 52-49 in Bloomington, The lowly Hoosiers (now 2-7 in Big Ten play) held the Illini to 32% shooting overall and 25% from the 3-point line. Illinois' slide started Jan. 11 in State College with a 57-55 loss at the Bryce Jordan Center, too, so the Lions know they can beat this team.

Keys to the game after the jump

When Penn State Has The Ball

  • Bench play, bench play, bench play. Penn State's lack of depth has been strikingly apparent, even in this recent string of improved play. This seems like a key for every game, but it's been especially true on the road, where the Lions have struggled to finish teams off, in part because the starters are all logging major minutes earlier in the game. Guys like Billy Oliver and Jermaine Marshall need to step up and contribute something measurable soon, or the Lions could run out of gas before any NCAA Tournament run is made.
  • Penn State handled the Illini 10-4 on the offensive boards in State College. Maintaining that ratio or even improving upon it will give the Lions bonus chances and in one of the Big Ten's toughest venues, and that always bodes well.
  • It's important for Penn State to come out and play well early. The Lions have dodged bullets in their last two games by coming back from double-digit first half deficits to win, but that was at home. The fans in Champaign can bury you quickly if you spot them that many points, so Penn State needs to be aggressive early in finding shots and keeping pace with the Illini if not grabbing a lead on them.

When Illinois Has The Ball

  • The Lions held key Illini scorers Demetri McCamey and D.J. Richardson to 13 combined points in the first matchup. That'll certainly be a tougher task on the road, but clearly Illinois doesn't play as well when those two are ineffective, so look for the staff to emphasize effort in guarding them again.
  • Mike Tisdale was the big scorer for Illinois the first time around, leading his team with 16 points on the evening. Obviously, containing him will be difficult for McCamey and Richardson to worry about on the outside, but nevertheless, improved defense against him down low will go a long way if the Lions can get it going.
  • Illinois turned the ball over 15 times in January. Force that number again and take care of the defensive boards and Penn State will be in very good position.

Overall

As tough as Assembly Hall is as a road venue, Penn State seems to have figured it out over the years, picking up some of its biggest wins there, including a 38-33 upset in 2008-2009. Combine that with Illinois' listlessness at the moment and this may be the Lions best chance to pick up a road win against a ranked team the rest of the way. It certainly won't be easy, but the team certainly knows it can do it, so don't be surprised if the Lions upset the Illini for the second straight time.

News And Notes

  • Ken Pomeroy still has Penn State finishing 15-14 this season. Oddly, that was the same forecast as before the Wisconsin game, but don't shoot the messenger. 
  • The latest Bracketology 101 forecast has Penn State in the tournament facing Temple as a No. 10 seed in the Southwest region. Kansas is the No. 1 seed there, San Diego State is the No. 2 seed. Here's their breakdown: "Penn State made the Big Ten a seven-bid league this week thanks to their win Saturday over Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions have eight losses and a tough road schedule left, but they now have three quality wins in conference, which is good enough - for the moment - to get a bid."
  • Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com has Penn State in his "First Four Out" category with Georgia, Baylor, and Richmond. The "Last Four In" are Wichita State, Butler, Washington State and Gonzaga. 
  • Andy Katz has a nice write up on Penn State on his blog right now.
  • The Daily Collegian's Alex Angert says Taran Buie is not expected to return this season, according to basketball SID Brian Siegrist.
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