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Penn State vs Illinois Preview: Lions Looking for the Sweep

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After an upset win over Maryland, it’s back-to-business in Champaign.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Opponent Summary

Who When: Where: TV: KenPom Rank: Record: Vegas Line:
Who When: Where: TV: KenPom Rank: Record: Vegas Line:
Iowa Hawkeyes Sunday, March 5, 1:00 PM EST Carver-Hawkeye Arena BTN 70 17-13, 9-8 Big Ten TBD

Similar to their first meeting a couple weeks ago, both teams come into this game near the bottom of the Big Ten standings. A win for either team keeps them afloat in the hunt for a top-half finish, but we’re reaching the point in the season where every loss stings a little bit more. Illinois will be looking for revenge on their home court after their comeback effort fell short in the second half at the Bryce Jordan Center in January.

After playing possibly their best half of basketball all year to jump out to a 20-point lead at home, Penn State imploded in the second half and nearly allowed Illinois to steal the win. Coming off a strong performance in the win over Maryland, the Nittany Lions will need another complete game if they are to grab another road win in the Big Ten. Unlike their last meeting, both teams enter Saturday’s match-up coming off upset wins over teams in the top 4 of the conference standings.

Illinois won their first road game of the year on Tuesday with a win over in-state rival, Northwestern. The Illini were able to bring a balanced scoring attack (four players in double-digits) to Evanston instead of their usual reliance on Malcolm Hill. They will need similar contributions on Saturday to beat Penn State.

Scouting the Opposition

Illinois has been playing better defensively of late, but as we saw in the first-half at the BJC, Penn State has what it takes to beat them consistently. John Groce was able to adapt, and in the second half the Illini performed much better. Now with a full game of tape to go on, we will see which coach is able to make the adjustments needed to give their team an early edge.

It’s no secret, Malcolm Hill will be the focal point of the offense for the home team. Against Maryland, Penn State was able to limit Melo Trimble to 11 points and only 3 FTs. If they can reproduce that success by shutting down the Illini’s star player, the Nittany Lions should put themselves in a position to win. I expect to see Josh Reaves matched up against Hill when possible, but it will be crucial for Lamar Stevens to avoid foul trouble when he draws the tough match-up.

Playing in front of a home crowd, I fear the potential for Michael Finke, Tracy Abrams, and Jalen Coleman-Lands to catch-fire from beyond the arc if Penn State isn’t diligent in their defense on the perimeter. Chambers needs everyone to follow through on rotations and limit easy shots.

What to Watch For

The resurgence of Lamar Stevens is a welcome sight coming into this game. Illinois is not a good shot-blocking team, and Stevens’ ability to score inside makes this a great match-up for him. Of course this was true the last time these teams met, and Lamar finished with 3 points. Which Lamar will show up tomorrow?

Penn State only won the turnover battle by a margin of 1, and was out-rebounded 40-27 when they played Illinois at home. They were fortunate to win with that rebounding margin, and must perform better to limit second-chance opportunities for the Illini in this meeting. I’d also like to see them do a better job of forcing turnovers, but I’ll settle for better ball control against an Illinois team not known for their defensive prowess.

Prediction

It was a tale of two halves last time out, with each team dominating a 20-minute segment of the game. Penn State managed to stave off the visiting team, but can’t afford a second-half collapse on the road. The inconsistency of Chambers’ young team was on full display in their first meeting, which makes predicting this outcome difficult. After coming up just short in their last road game at Indiana, I think the Nittany Lions pull-through for the series sweep.

Penn State 74, Illinois 68