Illinois at Penn State Preview

Meyers Leonard is the big man on campus at Illinois. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Who: #22 Illinois Fighting Illini (15-3, 4-1)
When: Tomorrow, 9:00 PM
Where: Bryce Jordan Center
TV: ESPN2
Radio: Affiliates, Sirius - CH 92, XM - CH 191

The Nittany Lions welcome the conference-leading Fighting Illini to town as they begin a 3-game stretch against all ranked teams. Illinois is on a three-game winning streak and was last seen beating Ohio State thanks to a miraculous night from Brandon Paul (43 points). Since this will be PSU's only guaranteed 'real' ESPN game (because ESPNU doesn't count), they will be breaking out the new alternate gray uniforms for the first time.

While Illinois has gotten off to a fast start in conference play, many don't expect it to last. They beat Minnesota, Nebraska, and OSU at home, and they snuck out of Northwestern with a 1 point win. They also got smoked at Mackey Arena against Purdue. They're ranked 39th in Pomeroy, which is just 7th in the Big Ten. Their record seems to be a benefit from ranking 13th in Pomeroy's Luck ratings.

PSU Conference-Only ILL
64.7 Pace 64.6
0.98 PPP 1.00
43.1% eFG% 54.3%
35.4% OReb% 28.0%
18.8% TO% 24.0%
34.4% FTR 35.8%
1.09 Opp PPP 0.98
58.3% Opp eFG% 49.6%
21.8% Opp OReb% 27.7%
21.4% Opp TO% 19.9%
59.2% Opp FTR 34.1%

Illinois doesn't exactly have an explosive offense, but they do shoot the ball well. They aren't a strong rebounding club and have been prone to turning the ball over in conference play. Defensively, Illinois is solid all-around, but not elite in any one area.

The Illini are led by the 7-footer Meyers Leonard. The sophomore has really developed his game this year, making a strong case against Tim Frazier as the conference's most improved player. Leonard is averaging 12 points and 7 rebounds in conference play. He will be a handful for Penn State's interior defense, which is already allowing opponents to make 54.5% of their 2PA.

Leonard is flanked by a talented backcourt in Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson, Sam Maniscalco, and Joe Bertrand. Paul and Richardson are both juniors who were returning starters coming into the year. They've been carrying the scoring load in the backcourt, averaging around 13 PPG. Richardson is a much better shooter (41% from 3), but Paul showed last week he can fill it up in a hurry. That game alone increased his 3-pt % from 28% to 34% on the season. Maniscalco is the graduate transfer from Bradley, where he started for three years. He would've exhausted his eligibility last season, but suffered a season ending ankle injury. The fifth-year senior has been out the last three games with another injury to that same ankle, but it's minor, as he's expected to play against PSU.

Bertrand has been huge for Illinois in conference play. The 6'5" sophomore has had an amazing in-season turn around. In the first 12 games, Bertrand averaged just 3.2 PPG in 11.4 MPG, but in their last 6, he's exploded for 14.2 PPG in 30.2 MPG. He tore up Missouri and Nebraska for 19 and 25, respectively on near perfect shooting (20-21 in both games combined). He's shooting 72% in this 6 game turnaround, all of which have come from inside the arc.

This has been a very close series when DeChellis was at the helm. 9 of the last 12 meetings have been determined by 6 points or less with both teams winning 6 a piece. Illinois has the far better team this year, but the only meeting is in State College. I don't think Illinois can guard Frazier, but Leonard's size in the middle could shut down the lane. This might be a chance for Billy Oliver to have a huge impact. Illinois will sometimes go four guards, so if Oliver could draw Leonard away from the hoop that would really help. Penn State needs to have better spacing/movement on offense than they showed Saturday.

If PSU does have success on offense and makes some shots, this could be a higher scoring game. The defense has been on the steady decline since conference play has started, and it's unlikely they'll have much resistance for Leonard inside. If Illinois heats it up from behind the arc, it could get ugly.

*STUDENTS - wear a gray Penn State shirt to the game and get in FREE. Plus, it's Dollar Dog Night. So if you're trying to get on ESPN and represent our program, get to the game. I seriously don't what else it would take to get you guys to show up.

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