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Penn State vs. Illinois Preview: Reeling Lions Looking for a Win

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After losing three straight, can Penn State rebound against the Illini at home?

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Opponent Summary

Who When: Where: TV: KenPom Rank: Record: Vegas Line:
Who When: Where: TV: KenPom Rank: Record: Vegas Line:
Indiana Hoosiers 6:30 PM EST, Wednesday, Februrary 1 Assembly Hall (Bloomington, Indiana) BTN 39 14-8, 4-5 Big Ten tba

These teams met once last year, in the final game of the regular season. Penn State pulled out a thrilling 86-79 win in double-overtime at the Bryce Jordan Center. This year’s game should also be close, but certainly winnable for the Nittany Lions. Dropping the last three games wasn’t shocking given who they were playing against, but Saturday’s tilt will be different. At home, this is game that Penn State needs to find a way to win.

If you count only their Big Ten wins, Penn State is concurrently tied for 8th and 13th in the conference. Illinois is lumped in that group with them with wins over Ohio State, Michigan, and most recently, Iowa. After the top 4 teams, the conference standings are a jumbled mess, but with a difficult road game at Indiana looming, the Lions need this win to keep up with the pack.

Scouting the Opposition

Malcolm Hill torched Penn State last year for 37 points and 13 rebounds, going 14-16 from the FT-line (albeit in 2OT). The senior guard is currently on a streak of 15 games in-a-row with double-figure scoring. I would expect to see Josh Reaves shadow him as much as possible, and it will be important for Penn State to limit his effectiveness from the field without giving him free shots at the line.

Maverick Morgan and Leron Black handle most of the work inside for the Illini. Neither are likely to put up gaudy numbers, but they are consistent contributors averaging 10.2 and 9.5 ppg respectively. In their most recent game against Iowa, 6’10” 3-pt specialist Michael Finke led the team with 17 points. Watkins and Moore can’t leave him alone outside the arc, where he’s shooting 41%.

Illinois is terrible at forcing turnovers, steals, and blocked shots. Penn State will need to limit unforced errors to not give the Illini any free takeaways leading to easy baskets. At the other end, they do a good job drawing fouls meaning once again it will be crucial for Watkins and Stevens to stay out of trouble.

What to Watch For

Illinois is an experienced team which has been starting three seniors in their lineup over the past few games. This contrasts sharply with Penn State’s inexperienced lineup with heavy usage of three freshman and no seniors. The Nittany Lions can’t afford to dwell on the last two drubbings, as the Illini are surely seeing an opportunity for a conference road-win (as well as revenge for last year).

Will the difference in experience show on the court? Hopefully not. Penn State will need Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins to break out of their slumps if they want to dictate the game-flow at home on Saturday. Neither will have any easy match-up, but after a stretch of Indiana, Purdue, Wisconsin, this is a game they need to be able to show-up for.

Prediction

KenPom is giving Penn State a slight 2-pt edge at home, making this game pretty much a toss-up. Knowing this is a game they can ill-afford to lose, I think the Nittany Lions find a way to limit the damage done by Malcolm Hill, and come out with the win thanks to a balanced scoring attack. At least 5 players reach double-digits for Penn State as they grab one of the crucial “need-to-win” games remaining on the schedule.

Penn State 77, Illinois 70