Penn State (8-17, 0-13 B1G) travels to Champaign, Illinois on Thursday night (8:15pm EST) to face the Fighting Illini (19-8, 6-7 B1G) of Illinois. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network. It is Penn State’s first game since it was announced Wednesday that freshman forward Donovan Jack will miss 3-4 weeks with a stress fracture in his foot and will be unavailable for the NCAA tournament.
While Penn State continues trying to avoid being the 2008 Detroit Lions of the B1G conference, it is important to look for silver linings: The Nittany Lions have played tough since a disappointing effort at Nebraska, losing their last two games but only by a combined ten points. Eight of the past ten meetings between these two teams have been decided by five points or less and Penn State has won at Assembly Hall three times in their last five visits.
THE LAST TIME OUT
The Nittany Lions played perhaps their best 40 minutes of basketball last weekend against one of the best teams in the country but eventually fell to the Michigan Wolverines 79-71. Trey Burke (or former Penn State transfer Trey Burke, as ESPN loves to remind everyone) led his team with 29 points and continues to dominate B1G play. Sasa Borovnjak set a career high with 17 points and is averaging 15.5 points over his last two games and has shot 60 percent from the field over the past ten games.
If nothing else, Penn State showed it is not afraid to play on the road, a positive since four of their last six games are away from the Bryce Jordan Center. The Lions led early and went into halftime tied 32-32 against the #5 ranked Wolverines. The 71 points was Penn State’s highest in a B1G road game since 2010 at Northwestern.
ABOUT THE ILLINI
Illinois is led by a pair of senior guards, Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. Richardson, the team’s leading scorer in B1G play at 14.7 per game, has averaged 17.3 over the past eight games. Paul, leading the team with 16.4 PPG for the year, is one point away from 1,500 for his career. Illinois has also played to the level of its competition, defeating top ten teams Indiana, Ohio State, and Gonzaga this season but losing to Purdue and at home against Northwestern.
The Illini come in to their matchup with Penn State on a four game winning streak. As previously mentioned, they have been wildly inconsistent this year. They rely on their guards, which plays into Penn State’s strengths since D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall have carried the team so far this season. Consider me the president of the Borovnjak fan club, but he could be the key to the game. The Serbian will be at a height and consonant disadvantage against Illinois big man Nnannna Egwu but is a much more skilled player overall.
It may seem a copout to say a game between two teams that have occasionally been offensively challenged to say the least this season will come down to defense, such is the case Thursday night. Illinois is 14-2 when it reaches 70 points and PSU is giving up just under 68 for the season. The Illini have tightened up their defense lately, only giving up an average of 56.3 points during their four game winning streak. Illinois is also 14-1 on the season when shooting a better percentage than their opponent. The answer isn’t a quick start either, which has been a staple of Penn State in B1G games lately, as Illinois has four wins on the season overcoming a double digit deficit.
Tyler Griffey may be the wild card in this game; the senior forward is averaging 12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds over the past four games and at 6’9” may cause matchup problems for the Lions inside. Griffey has also made two buzzer-beating, game-winning shots for Illinois at home, so keep an eye on him should this one come down the wire. I predict that it will, but the Lions come away with a victory, 66-65.
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