Penn State at Illinois Preview: Lions Shooting For Road Upset in Champaign

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Penn State hoop stars take their act on the road for the first time in Big Ten play when they visit Illinois. Can they pull off the shocker?

Who: Illinois Fighting Illini
When: Tomorrow (Saturday)
Where: Assembly Hall, Champaign, IL
TV: 2:15 PM ET, BTN
KenPom Rank: 49
Vegas Line: N/A
Enemy Blog: The Champaign Room

Well, that sure was a nice one-two punch on New Year's Eve, huh? I'm talking of course, about the Bill O'Brien news and the second half destruction Michigan State laid upon Penn State after a promising first half in which free Big Macs (for scoring over 70 points) for the fans in attendance seemed like a foregone conclusion at halftime. Pat Chambers' squad must now pick up the pieces and forge ahead as they face their first Big Ten road contest of the season at an Illinois team coming off an exhilarating 83-80 overtime victory over Indiana on New Year's Eve.

Scouting The Opposition

Illinois may only have ten scholarship players on its roster this season, but that hasn't stopped them from experiencing great success this season. The Illini have a three-headed monster of a backcourt, of which Rayvonte Rice leads the way, averaging 19 points and nearly six rebounds per game. In fact, Rice is coming off a season-high 29 point/eight rebound performance against Indiana. Teaming up with Rice in the backcourt is Tracy Abrams, who averages 13 points and three assists per game. Abrams stepped up with a critical drive to the hoop in overtime against Indiana, which basically screamed eff it, I'm taking matters into my own hands. Joseph Bertrand also averages double figures scoring (11 ppg) and averages over five boards per game, himself.

Up front, Nnanna Egwu (a great first name if you're a fan of the movie Caddyshack) averages over eight points, five rebounds, and two blocks per game. Jon Ekey is another forward to keep an eye on, as the graduate transfer has provided the team not only with rebounding (5.8 rpg) ability, but is also the team's most consistent 3-point shooter at 37% on 27 of 73 attempts from beyond the arc this season. This of course, means that Ekey's due for an unconscious shooting performance against a god-awful PSU perimeter defense.

Key Matchup

As always, the storyline will be how well Penn State's post players can handle an opposing team's big men. If Egwu is able to bully around Donovon Jack, Ross Travis, or whoever else tries to stop him in the paint from the get-go, it could spell a long afternoon for Penn State. Look for Jordan Dickerson to get several quality minutes as another tall body Pat Chambers may try to throw at the Illini.

Also, keep an eye out for how the PSU and Illini backcourts fare against each other. Both teams have very athletic guards that won't think twice about driving to the basket, but also have the ability to pull up and shoot. It should be especially compelling to watch Tim Frazier go up against Abrams in a battle of the point guards.

Prediction

As much as I would love to call for the big road upset, this PSU team's inability to play a complete 40 minutes of basketball has put me in an "I'll believe it when I see it" mood. The Princeton collapse and the bi-polar performance against Sparty have firmly cemented such a mindset for myself.

Even though the Illini rank near the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring offense (72.1 ppg, good enough for 10th), they more than make up for it by having the third best scoring defense in the conference, allowing only 62 points a game on average while PSU ranks dead last, allowing 73.6 ppg. Until I see otherwise, I'm expecting more of the same.

Give me Illinois, 77-66.

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