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Penn State at Illinois Preview: Bring The Boxing Gloves

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Two teams trying to stay afloat amongst the middle of the pack in the Big Ten square off in Champaign.

Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports
Who: Illinois Fighting Illini
When: Saturday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Where: State Farm Center
TV: BTN, BTN2Go
KenPom Rank: 70
Vegas Line: Illinois -6
Enemy Blog: The Champaign Room

Don't look now, but the Penn State Nittany Lions have a two-game winning streak after dropping the first six in Big Ten play. Who would have thought a team playing without John Johnson or Brandon Taylor and having D.J. Newbill score 12 points in 40 minutes could lead to a winning recipe? What happened in Wednesday night's 63-58 win over Minnesota was a team that was in unison more than maybe all year. All nine Lions that played scored at least three points and their transition defense stifled Minnesota's guards all night.

Head coach Pat Chambers said after the game that Taylor is still day-to-day leading up to Saturday. Not to say the team is better off without BT, but it's encouraging at least to see others step up off the bench and play a lot of useful minutes down the stretch of a tight game. This will be a tougher test going into Champaign though, especially if Illini sophomore guard Kendrick Nunn and D.J. debate about whose mouthwash is stronger.

Scouting The Opposition

The Illini have been handicapped with a couple of injuries up to this point. Before the season started, senior Tracy Abrams tore his ACL leaving the Illini to turn to a couple transfers to fill the void. One of them was Seton Hall transfer Aaron Cosby, who has been out since the beginning of the Indiana game on Jan. 18 when an opponents' hand struck Cosby in the face, thus tearing his retina in his left eye. And don't forget about senior guard and Champaign native Rayvonte Rice, who went down about two weeks prior to Cosby's injury with a broken left hand. Needless to say it's been a tumultuous start to 2015 for an Illini team that had promise of a NCAA tournament bid before the season.

Illinois' leadership the last couple of games has been on the shoulders of some of the young faces in the program. Sophomore forward Malcolm Hill is averaging 16 points and 4.7 rebounds per game in his last three outings. If Brandon Taylor is healthy, this will be an individual matchup on both ends of the floor that could steer momentum in one team's favor for sure.

The biggest spike in improvement in Rice's and Cosby's absence has come from Nunn. In his last four games, the sophomore is averaging 20.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per contest. That includes the hot start he got off to against Indiana on Jan 18, when he scored 12 of the first 19 Illini points, all of which came from beyond the arc. This kid is going to be in the conversation for First Team All-Big Ten before we know it.

Stepping into the point guard role has been Nunn's high school teammate at Simeon (as you've all heard 614 times since they've both been in Champaign), Jaylon Tate. Tate was an assist away from his first career double-double last time out at Minnesota, but still finished with a career-high nine dimes for the game. Anchoring the Illini down low has been senior center Nnanna Egwu, who has been hit or miss this year.

What To Watch For

Freshman forward Leron Black has stepped into the starting lineup, giving the Illini a more prototypical starting five with two back-to-the-basket guys. Illini head coach John Groce was uncertain this week whether or not Rice or Cosby will be in the lineup, but all indications are that Rice has a better chance of playing than Cosby. Will Penn State try to turn up the tempo to push the Illinois guards into making quick decisions and will Illinois have enough in the tank to keep things interesting at the end? Illinois only went two deep off the bench last time out at Minnesota, if you don't include junior Mike LaTulip's four minutes. If Penn State gets Illinois into foul trouble in the first half, it could be a long afternoon for the Illini.

Prediction

Ready for this? I'm calling for an upset. I know Illinois is a very desperate team right now and will not have played a game for about a week, but Penn State hasn't played badly in any of their performances on the road in Big Ten play outside of the Rutgers game and the second half against Wisconsin. I still believe winning breeds confidence and I've got to think that even though the offense benefited from it as a whole, there's no way D.J. Newbill has another 4 for 15 shooting performance in him. If the transition defense plays as well as it did against Minnesota and the guards push the tempo, then maybe that manager will get in! Hey, that kid is from my hometown so I'm rooting for all the best in his favor this year. Just not on Saturday. Penn State 64, Illinois 61.