First thing's first. Tonight is THON night at the Bryce Jordan Center. All student ticket proceeds go directly to fundraiser for helping kids with cancer, so if you're a student and your alternative entertainment this evening is playing Xbox or something, come out to the game if for nothing else to support the cause and spend a couple hours with your fellow students.
Onto the basketball, now. Penn State will host its second straight ranked opponent when it takes on No. 16 Illinois at 9 tonight. The game will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.
The Nittany Lions (9-6, 2-2) are coming off a big win against then No. 19 Michigan State on Saturday at the Jordan Center. The team's four senior starters had their most productive scoring effort of the season as they all managed to crack double figures with forward Jeff Brooks leading the way with 17 points. Penn State also got continued production from redshirt freshman Jermaine Marshall. The guard, seeing court time in place of the suspended Taran Buie in the last couple of games, scored eight points the game after he put up 18 on then No. 10 Purdue last Wednesday.
Illinois (13-3, 3-0) has rebounded nicely to open up Big Ten play since losing to Illinois-Chicago and Missouri to close its non-conference slate. The Fighting Illini hold wins over Iowa, Wisconsin and a dominating effort against Northwestern last Thursday in Champaign. Illinois shot a mind-numbing 81% in the first half of that game, led at halftime by over 20 points, and cruised to victory. The Lions will certainly be facing a team that just played some of its best basketball of the season.
And so, the stage is set for a crucial game for Penn State. Contrary to popular belief, the loss to Maine a few weeks ago did not doom Penn State to a last place finish or even another spring without postseason basketball. It certainly made reaching the team's goal of an NCAA Tournament appearance much harder, but a second straight conference win over a ranked opponent tonight will go a very long way toward patching the hole in its resume and offering breathing room as the Lions prepare to face No. 2 Ohio State and No. 8 Purdue starting this weekend. If the team brings it tonight, it'll have a chance to get that.
When Illinois Has The Ball
- The talented guard combo of Demetri McCamey and D.J. Richardson, averaging a combined 27.7 points this season, is going to do it's fair share scoring. Penn State just doesn't guard the perimeter very well and these guys will probably get and knock down their share of open looks. That's why it's very important that Penn State plays to its strength and defends the interior this evening against the productive front court tandem of Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale, averaging a combined 21.1 points. The Illini will have a distinct height advantage, but Penn State held Michigan State's Delvon Roe and Draymond Green to 12 combined points on Saturday. If the Lions can repeat that performance, it'll go a long way for them in this game.
- Illinois doesn't rebound nearly as well as Michigan State, a team Penn State worked on the boards 40-36 on Saturday. If the Lions play as they've shown they can on the glass, it should do some nice things for them in this game. Clearing whatever misses the Illinois perimeter players make will be important, as will fighting for second chances at the offensive end. This is a very elementary in the game, but the Penn State coaches emphasize it as they should. Here's hoping the players get the message.
- Like Michigan State, Illinois isn't very consistent from the foul line, hitting at only 69%. Beyond Tisdale, who hits at 82%, the Lions can't be afraid to put the Illini on the line and force them to make free throws to win.
When Penn State Has The Ball
- The secret to Andrew Jones' revival offensively in the past couple of games has been getting his newly found mid-range jumper going early. Penn State needs to feed him the ball in that area off the tip to see if he can make a few of those and pull Tisdale and Davis away from the bucket to open up the offense down low.
- Many are clamoring for Marshall to get more playing time and rightfully so. He's certainly earned it. It's important that Tim Frazier continue to get minutes, though. He's one of the team's few solid on-ball defenders and he distributes the ball very well. He doesn't bring quite what Marshall does to the table offensively, but he does help the team nonetheless. Seeing the pair continue to work well in a platoon role at the two spot would be nice.
- The scoring distribution has really improved for Penn State over the last few games. Obviously, this is important because it suggests that if one or two of the bigger scorers has a bad night, someone else can carry the load. The Lions need to keep that momentum going here.
As mentioned earlier, this game will likely come down to Illinois' offensive front court to Penn State's defensive front court. If the Illini can established a presence in the post early, it's going to be very difficult for the Lions to win while struggling to contain the perimeter players led by McCamey and the post players led by Davis. If they can't, though, well then, that's when it gets interesting. Penn State will be able to focus more on getting a hand in McCamey's face and working its way out to the guards. At that point, all bets are off. Illinois is another team with players Penn State knows very well at this point. If the game is tight late, it's anyone's game.
The weather isn't looking too good tonight, as snow is expected before, during and after the game. Try not to let that stop you if you're on campus, though. You never know when this might happen.
And if nothing else, do it FTK.