Don’t look now, but the same phenomenon from last season is taking shape in this year’s Big Ten. Home teams are pulling off win after win (not you, Maryland!), regardless of how highly ranked the visiting squad happens to be. Penn State can join in the fun on Wednesday, when they host the No. 18 Illinois Fighting Illini.
Like Michigan before them, Illinois poses another threat to the Nittany Lions in the form of a tall lineup that is not lacking in talent, something that gave Penn State a ton of trouble 10 days ago, and something that will continue to give the Lions trouble in the foreseeable future if they can’t find a way to mitigate the multiple matchup nightmares they will find themselves in, especially in the next few weeks.
Luckily for Penn State, however, Illinois has crashed back down to earth a bit, having started the season ranked No. 5, and already owning a win on the road over Duke. They’ve since lost games against Baylor, Missouri, and Rutgers (all away from home), so there is a formula for success that can be replicated if the Lions are up to the task. Priority number one, of course, is to find a way to avoid going on long stretches without a score. You’re not beating anyone if you’re not going to score the ball consistently.
Scouting the Opposition
This Illinois team was ranked No. 5 at some point for a reason. Maybe the reason was people were smoking crack at the time, but this team has no shortage of talent to take them as far as they want to go this season. It all starts with do everything guard Ayo Dosunmu, and sometimes it all ends there too. Both he and Kofi Cockburn spurned the NBA last season to come back and return the Illini to their glory days. Trent Frazier, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, and Da’Monte Williams tag along for the fun, and newcomer Adam Miller joins the fray for the Illini, making up the bulk of Illinois’ contributions on the field.
Illinois is shooting the ball as well as you can expect, averaging a nice 45% rate from three point range —which, in fairness, is skewed by Williams’ and Bezhanishvili’s 70% and 100% rates, respectively. The rest of the team hovers between 38 and 40 percent. For as good as they are on the floor, however, they are pretty pedestrian at the line, averaging out at 68%. That numbers is also pulled down by Williams and Bezhanishvili, who are shooting at 60 and 41 (!!) percent respectively. This might be one of the few times were the Nittany Lions’ propensity to foul might not come back to haunt them in the end, like it did at Michigan.
What to Watch For
The biggest one here is whether someone, whether it’s Cockburn, Bezhanishvili, or someone else, will eat Penn State’s lunch in the post again. Hunter Dickinson did basically whatever he wanted for Michigan, so the Lions are going to need to figure out a way to neutralize the big men if they hope to keep up in this game.
Alternatively, they can, as mentioned before, make the post an afterthought by having a good shooting performance while preventing the same from Illinois. The Illini, as also mentioned before, have tended to live and die by Dosunmu at times, and it’s going to be a lot easier to contain Cockburn if Dosunmu is a non-factor in this game. And, given that Cockburn’s free throw percentage is not much better than Bezhanishvili’s, maybe fouling before a shot goes in might be the ticket here.
I have now just realized I’ve predicted the last three games, including this one. I’m 1-1 so far this season, so how about I get back on the good side? Penn State 75, Illinois 72.