Things can change in a hurry in the Big Ten, but as of this week, the Nittany Lions and the Maryland Terrapins are a clear numbers one and two in the conference standings. Penn State has a 1.5 game lead on third place, themselves behind Maryland by a game. By virtue of holding the tiebreaker with the Terrapins, the Lions can clinch a 1-seed in the Big Ten Tournament if they continue to win while Maryland trips up somewhere along the way.
That journey starts on Tuesday, when the Nittany Lions face the Illinois Fighting Illini at the Bryce Jordan Center. Illinois is coming off their fourth straight loss, one that saw them take their turn the Trapezoid of Terror, the place where dreams go to die. Illinois played Rutgers straight for a half, but ultimately, the absence of Ayo Dosunmu was too much to overcome down the stretch, and the Scarlet Knights were putting up circus shot after circus shot, making all of them. It certainly didn’t help that the Illini tried to keep pace by throwing up their own circus shots, which obviously didn’t fall.
That leads us to this game. It’s safe to assume the Illini don’t want to falter down the stretch, which means they’ll come into this game with desperation in mind. The Nittany Lions have to keep their business-like attitude in this game, forgetting about the outside noise that was so detrimental early in the conference season. Their ultimate goal is within their grasp, and this game is merely another stop in that journey.
Scouting the opposition
Ayo Dosunmu, the heart and soul of Illinois basketball, is still day to day, so there’s a chance he misses this game too. In his stead, Trent Frazier, Andres Feliz (DR wat up!), and Da’Monte Williams have been taking backcourt duties as best as they can. The void left by Dosunmu was nonetheless felt in the Illlini’s loss at Rutgers. If Dosunmu can’t suit up on Tuesday, look for the Nittany Lions to ramp up the half court pressure to force Illinois out of a rhythm early.
Another aspect to consider is the wear and tear on Kofi Cockburn, who has been exceptional in his freshman campaign, but could be showing signs of fatigue due to the rigors of a full season in the Big Ten. To combat this, Brad Underwood has been playing Giorgi Bezhanishvili more at the center position, after having him at the four for most of the season. The Lions will still need to contend with the possibility of Cockburn and Bezhanishvili on the floor at the same time, which has spelled trouble for lots of teams this season. This s a game where our bigs need to stay out of foul trouble.
What to watch for
Myreon Jones time? - The guard has missed three games due to illness. This would be a great game to ease him back into the lineup if he’s healthy.
Fouls - both of these teams are physical, so don’t be surprised if this turns into a free throw shooting contest at some point.
Atmosphere - Not often does the Penn State fan base fill up Bryce Jordan for a weekday game, but the numbers for this one are pretty good so far. Will they provide the juice to keep this game in the home team’s favor?
This game won’t be easy, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out Penn State’s focus with so much on the line. Penn State 72, Illinois 64.