Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State Basketball Preview: Nittany Lions Travel to Take on Illinois


Game: Penn State (9-5, 0-1 Big Ten) at Illinois (12-2, 1-0 Big Ten)

Time: 2:15 p.m. EST

TV: Big Ten Network

Line: Illinois, -7.5

Life in the Big Ten Conference on the basketball court isn’t easy these days. Once known as just a football conference, the Big Ten is now one of, if not the toughest basketball conference in the nation. The Penn State Nittany Lions opened conference play on Tuesday against the No.5 Michigan State Spartans at home. Now, the Nittany Lions must travel to a tough environment in Illinois and take on the very tough Fighting Illini.

The Nittany Lions looked ready to shock the basketball world on New Year’s Eve when they dominated the Spartans for the entire first half and took a seven-point lead into halftime. However, Michigan State took over in the second half and went on to the 79-63 victory. Second-half collapses are nothing new to the Nittany Lions. Earlier this season, they lost a 20-point second-half lead to the Princeton Tigers.

Penn State will look to play a complete game today against the Illini.

Penn State ranks in the middle of the pack in the country, ranking 45th, scoring 79.9 points a game. The two biggest problem areas this season have been rebounding and getting shots to fall. The Nittany Lions rank 144th in the country in rebounding and 72nd in shooting percentage, making just 47 percent of their shots.

It’s not all bad at Penn State though. Guards Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill have combined to form one of the best backcourts in the nation. Newbill averages 18.8 PPG, while Frazier is scoring 17.4 PPG and adds 7.3 assists. Forward Ross Travis has also been a great source of production this season, scoring 11.4 PPG and grabbing 8.3 RPG.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini, on the other hand, have had a great start to this season, with just two losses coming to Georgia Tech and No. 15 Oregon. However, while the record is good, an analysis of the stats shows that Illinois actually ranks worse than Penn State in points for, points against, rebounds and shooting percentage.

Don’t let the numbers fool you though. Illinois plays a tough brand of basketball and can grind out wins when needed. That was shown in the conference-opener, an 83-80 victory in overtime against Indiana.

Junior guard Rayvonte Rice is the top player on Illinois. He’s averaging 19 points a game and has been tough for opposing defenses to stop. He’s coming off a 29-point performance against Indiana in which he also added eight rebounds. Frazier and Newbill will have their hands full trying to defend him.

Ben Woloszyn-USA TODAY Sports

Ben Woloszyn-USA TODAY Sports

Down low, the Nittany Lions will have to deal with Nnanna Egwu. The 6-11, 250-pound center controls the paint with his ability to both rebound and block shots.

This road game will be a good test for the Nittany Lions. The upset victory is not impossible, but the Nittany Lions are going to have to play strong in the second-half and get good production from their bench. John Johnson, who was held in check by Michigan State, will be a key in the game today.

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Tags: Basketball Penn State Nittany Lions