It only took three months, but Penn State has finally started playing like a competitive basketball team lately with wins in three of its last five games. The two most recent victories, a major upset over Michigan and a complete humiliation of Nebraska, are an indication that perhaps Pat Chambers is still fit to be the coach of this struggling program. On the other hand, the recent success might look like a fluke if the Lions can’t continue their winning ways down the stretch.
Scouting the opposition
Enter Illinois, a young program that got off to a very slow start this year before improving dramatically under the guidance of second-year head coach Brad Underwood. Before losing to Wisconsin on Monday, the Illini had rolled off four straight wins against Nebraska, Michigan State, Rutgers, and Ohio State. Pretty decent work for a program that only won six games before February.
The key to the turnaround has been a group of young players led by freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu. The Chicago native’s athleticism and vision allows him to impact the game from anywhere on the court, as he’s averaging 14.1 points and 3.2 assists per game. Dosunmu isn’t the most efficient scorer around, but his 35-percent clip from three-point range means the defense must stay close no matter where he’s at.
Sophomore guard Trent Frazier adds more shooting to the backcourt, as he hits 42 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. He proved last year that he’s capable of playing point guard, but with Dosunmu running the offense, Frazier is often best served as the finisher instead of the creator.
On the interior, center Giorgi Bezhanishvili has come up huge lately with his ability to score down low. His incredible 35-point performance against Rutgers gave Illinois a lift and put Bezhanishvili on the radar as a big man that Big Ten opponents need to do a little extra to prepare for.
What to watch for
Bolton’s hot shot - Rasir Bolton struggled with his jump shot for much of January, but since the overtime loss to Purdue on the last day of that month, he’s shooting 14-for-28 from beyond the arc. The hot streak has given Penn State’s offense a kick in the rear, and it’s no coincidence that his most complete game of the season — 8-for-12 shooting, 21 points, four assists against Nebraska — led to the Lions’ highest scoring output.
Wheeler’s strange talent - It’s sometimes fun to imagine what kind of player Jamari Wheeler could be if he could just shoot a little bit. He’s brilliant at stealing the ball, playing tight man defense, and running the fast break. Plus, now he has a new skill with the way he attacks the glass on offense. Wheeler has 10 offensive rebounds in his last four games despite often being the smallest man on the floor. His lack of a scoring touch is still frustrating, but Wheeler always finds ways to remind us that he belongs on the court.
Just enjoy Stevens - Lamar Stevens figures to be a four-year player at Penn State, but you never know with the way he’s playing this year. The junior power forward is playing the best ball of his career, and now the results are coming with it thanks to some help from his teammates. Stevens is too big for most guards to check and too quick for most big men. That’s why he’s turned into such a prolific scorer who is also a fierce rebounder and clutch shot blocker when needed.
It’s great to see Penn State’s young guards showing such promise, but Illinois has even more talent in the backcourt. The deciding factor in this game could be Myles Dread, who has been quiet lately after hitting five three-pointers in the Michigan win. If Dread and Bolton are both crushing jumpers from downtown, it’s going to be tough for any opponent to keep pace with Penn State. However, I’ll take Illinois in a close one because of how solid the Illini have been at home lately.
Illinois 82, Penn State 79