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Penn State at No. 17 Illinois Preview: Toughest Road Test Awaits

Lions get their toughest road test out of the way early.

Mar 3, 2022; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini forward Coleman Hawkins (33) and Penn State Nittany Lions guard Myles Dread (2) wrestle for the ball during the second half at State Farm Center. Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State continues its tough stretch with a second road game in three contests, following their trip to Charleston. The Nittany Lions head to Champaign to take on the red hot Fighting Illini, who just finished taking down No. 2 Texas on the road. This will be a tough challenge for the Lions, but if they are able to get some of that three-point magic from earlier in the season, they could very well keep pace with the suddenly-quite-young Illini.

Illinois had their own “toughest road test of the season” in the sense that they seem to perform very poorly at Maryland, and that’s where they opened their conference season this year. Unsurprisingly, the Terps came out ahead in that contest, a 71-66 victory that showed a certainly level of inconsistency that the Lions can take advantage of.

When on, the Illini can be one of the best teams in the country. They showed it when they went down to Austin and took out the No. 2 team in the country in its own house. When off, they can let what looks like a good, but not great Maryland team take control of the game, while going 5-for-20 from beyond the arc. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that has been the formula for just about every Penn State loss this season. The biggest separating factor between the two teams at the moment is Illinois’ experienced height, which allows them to have a complementary style to their play, which Penn State is sorely lacking right now.

Scouting The Opposition

Speaking of experienced height, Illinois 6-foot-9 forward Dain Dainja on 43 percent of available minutes, while giving him 25 percent of possessions. 6-foot-10 forward Coleman Hawkins, of which the Lions should be quite familiar with, takes the bulk of the minutes relinquished by now departed Kofi Cockburn. But wait, there’s more! Senior Matthew Mayer, getting 48 percent of available minutes, also stands at 6-foot-9, making the Illini one of the tallest teams the Lions will face this season.

When the Lions aren’t busy digging through the forest, they’ll need to contend with do-it-all guard Terrence Shannon, who is averaging 19.3 points per game to go along with his 6.2 rebounds per game, all on an effective field goal rate of 56.5. Jayden Epps leads the team from beyond the arc at 38.5 percent, which is good news in a way, as the Lions have three different players above that mark for the season, four if you count Caleb Dorsey’s 50 percent clip on eight shots.

What To Watch For

Can the Nittany Lions successfully trade threes for twos? It’s abundantly clear that Penn State will need a monster game from Kebba Njie, Dorsey, and whatever we can get out of Michael Henn in order to compete inside. The way they can mitigate that weakness is by letting the Fighting Illini get their two point shots while countering with threes on the other end. Penn State shot an abysmal 29.6% from three against Michigan State. Elevating that number closer to the trend line should be instrumental in keeping this game within reach.

Speaking of big men, let’s see how Njie performs this time around. He had a bit of a “deer in headlights” look to him against the Spartans, so we’ll need him to grow up quickly, because these big men are even bigger. Demetrius Lilley seemed to have his left knee wrapped last time around, so it’s unlikely we see him on the floor in this one.


I’d love to sit here and tell you Penn State will follow up a dude against Michigan State with an inspired effort against Illinois, but my brain is getting the better of my heart. Illinois 79, Penn State 71