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Penn State at Illinois Preview: The Last “Winnable” Game Approaches

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Penn State goes on the road to face a feisty Illinois squad.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

The Nittany Lions took care of business in their last game, handling Maryland’s several attempts at a comeback to win a pivotal game. Penn State now finds itself in another pivotal game, against an Illinois squad that has found some rhythm in the past few weeks.

While the Illini have lost two of their last four games, dropping one they likely should have had against Wisconsin most recently, they still have the firepower to keep up with the rest of the conference. Illinois was up 17 on the road against Ohio State before the Buckeyes woke up and made their comeback (something they had to do in each half, as the Illini started both halves on a 28-16 run). They were a banked shot away from beating Nebraska on the road, and, save for the first meeting with the Badgers, have been in each game until the end.

This presents an opportunity for the Nittany Lions to pick off a wounded bird before they start their murder stretch of four top conference teams to end the season. And, if Nebraska wins against Rutgers this weekend, it’s possible that each of Penn State’s next four opponents after Illinois will be ranked.

Scouting the opposition

When John Groce was fired, a number of guys departed with him. A number of others, due to off-the-field issues, left even before that. Brad Underwood had a few leftovers to work with, though, and added a few new faces to complement the remaining players. Michael Finke and Leron Black, Kipper Nichols, Te’Jon Lucas, and Aaron Jordan make up the core of Illinois’ remaining talent, while Trent Frazier, Mark Smith, and Mark Alstork, the three new additions (Alstrok via transfer), round out the cast of players who take up the most minutes for Underwood’s squad.

Illinois’ style of play is starting to resemble what Underwood wants in a squad. They play fast, spread the ball around, and are constantly in motion. Their main problem is that their defense, ranked 92nd in the country and 11th in the Big Ten as per Kenpom, lets them down time after time. It was on full display against Ohio State, when the Buckeyes were able to overcome a substantial lead by the Illini twice to win the game. It was on full display against Iowa, when the Hawkeyes overcame a 20-point second-half hole to win the game in overtime. It was, again, on full display on the road at Nebraska, when a six point second half lead quickly turned into a six point second half deficit, and even after overcoming that deficit, the Huskers banked the last second three pointer. If the Nittany Lions can take advantage of the porous Illini defense, they should be in great shape for this one.

What to watch for

Post play - Illinois still lacks the height to handle both Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins, so look for this to be one of the games where feeding the post becomes Penn State’s main goal for the duration. Finke is the only player taller than 6’7” who sees any significant minutes, so putting him in foul trouble early could force Illinois to play out of sorts from the start.

Relentless defense - Iowa is a team in the mold of Illinois offensively, and Penn State was able to easily shut them down in their last meeting. The Nittnay Lions might have to replicate that effort to prevent this one from becoming a track meet.

Avoid long scoring droughts - This may be part of the team’s identity at this point, but Illinois is fairly capable on offense, and any lapse in the Lions’ own scoring could be greatly beneficial for the fighting Illini. They need to take advantage of every possession and prevent Illinois from having any opportunity to take over the game.

Prediction

Josh Reaves’ return to the lineup has ignited a fire under the Nittany Lions, who have now won four of their last five games. It would be logical to predict an easy Penn State win here, but I think they come back to earth a little and let this one slip away. Illinois will be angry after their own near miss against Wisconsin, and the Lions will be the unfortunate victim. Illinois 77, Penn State 76.