Who would have thought a few weeks ago that we would be sitting here with a chance to actually play a post season game after the Big Ten Tournament? Yet here we are. We have a 15-15 record and two impressive wins on our resume. In order to qualify for the post season we have to win our first game against the Illinois Fighting Illini.
In the first game between the two this season the Nittany Lions pulled off a 68-64 win in front of an orange clad sellout crowd in Champaign. Penn State fell down by nine points early and the hostile crowd tried to stomp them into submission. But the team in blue stayed calm and chipped away. They simply outhustled the Illini by outrebounding them 45-22. But Penn State needed double-doubles from both Cornley and Claxton in order to pull out the win. They won't be able to rely on that this week. And they will have to contain freshman guard Demetri McCamey who torched them for 18 points in the first game and has been really coming on strong as a scorer of late.
In the second game between the two teams the Nittany Lions had to get by without their star, Geary Claxton. The huge rebound advantage in the first game became a 25-33 deficit. Jamelle Cornley struggled through a sore knee to score just six points. Both teams struggled to score, but Talor Battle came through in the clutch with nine straight points to close out the game including two high pressure free throws in the closing seconds. Trent Meachum led the Illini with 11 points while the ever dangerous Shaun Pruitt added 10.
Statistically these two teams are pretty evenly matched with no team holding a clear advantage in any one category. Illinois appears to have the better defense and better rebounding, but Penn State shoots better from three point range. And believe it or not, Penn State actually shoots better than Illinois from the free throw line. Who knew that was possible? Illinois is dead last in the conference in free throw percentage shooting just over 60%. Don't think it's a huge advantage. We're only shooting 62%.
Now if Penn State is going to win this game they're going to have to do it without Claxton or Cornley. The fab four freshmen pulled off the shocking upset against Indiana last weekend, but, I have to be honest, I'm not very optimistic about this one. These kids play pretty well at home, but they haven't proven they can show up on the road where we've lost seven in a row since Claxton went down. And the sad thing is we've lost those seven games by an average of 18 points. I think this will be a close game, but I fear beating the same team three times in one season may be too much to ask.
The game will be played on Thursday at 2:30 PM on ESPN2. So set your TiVo or play hooky from work if you can. This may be your last chance to see the Nittany Lions play this year. The winner gets to play Purdue on Friday. So, yay.