The Fighting Illini (13-8, 3-5) return to Champaign for a matchup against Penn State this Saturday at the State Farm Center. Illinois is coming off a tough loss in Minneapolis and are currently sitting in tenth place in the Big Ten. In their past seven games they've rotated wins and losses in what has been a rollercoaster conference season. If they follow suit against the Nittany Lions, they'll be back in the win column, within a game of .500, and one step closer to a potential NCAA tournament bid.
Meanwhile, things have been pretty solemn in Happy Valley this season, but give Pat Chambers credit; the Nittany Lions have rattled off two in a row against Rutgers and Minnesota at home to move to 2-6 in the Big Ten. They started out the season at 12-1 and even received votes in both top 25 polls before beginning the conference slate. And despite having three times as many losses as they have wins, they've lost to Indiana by three, to Purdue in overtime, and to Michigan State by six.
The Illini are undefeated against Penn State under John Groce, and they'll look to continue the success they've had against the pesky Nittany Lions this weekend. The fanbase also received some long-awaited encouraging news earlier this week when Groce said he was "open-minded" to the idea of returning injured guards Aaron Cosby and Rayvonte Rice to the lineup:
#illini Groce doesn't shut door on Rice playing Saturday but said he needs to see him in practice. Want to be aggressive but patient.
— Jeremy Werner (@WernerESPNCU) January 29, 2015
#illini Groce says "sure there can be a chance" Cosby plays vs. Penn State.
— Jeremy Werner (@WernerESPNCU) January 29, 2015
Though he may not get starter's minutes, any appearance of Rice is an unexpected pleasure due to the fact that he was projected to be out for another 1-2 weeks. But this could also just be a decoy to force Penn State to prepare for him. Only time will tell.
Illinois Fighting Illini:
- Jaylon Tate | SO
- Kendrick Nunn | SO
- Malcolm Hill | SO
- Leron Black | FR
- Nnanna Egwu | SR
- Shep Garner | FR
- Geno Thorpe | SO
- D.J. Newbill | SR
- Donovan Jack | JR
- Ross Travis | SR
Keys to the Game:
1. Contain D.J. Newbill
There's no way you're going to completely shut down all-Big Ten guard D.J. Newbill, so instead the Illini must simply try to contain him. Penn State doesn't have many other offensive weapons, so it will be key to focus in on stopping Newbill's ability to create offense on his own. He's averaging nearly 22 points per game and also leads the team in assists and steals.
However, he seems to struggle against Illinois and you may remember he was ejected from last year's matchup after he shoved Kendrick Nunn in the back of the head. I'm sure he'll receive a warm welcome from Nunn and company when he returns to Champaign for the first time since that incident. If the Illini can replicate the defensive effort they put together against Newbill last season, they'll have an excellent chance of winning this game.
2. Crash the boards
The Purdue game last week was quite possibly the best game the Illini have had all season in terms of rebounding the ball. Leron Black was a stud and collected 13 boards by himself, and it seemed like half of those were offensive putbacks. That edge and size in the paint seemed to disappear against Minnesota, but it definitely needs to return for this matchup. While Newbill can hit shots from inside the arc and behind the three-point line, Penn State doesn't have a lot of other scoring threats, and they will miss shots. They're 120th in the country in rebounds per game and 305th in assists per game. That's why it's key to be aggressive on the boards against them. I'd like to see another solid performance from Black and Nnanna Egwu in the paint. If the Illini can hold Newbill to, say, 20 points or fewer, and ensure that most trips down the floor are one-and-done's for the Nittany Lions, they'll win this game.
3. Become a consistent team
This is more of a general key than one specific to this game, but even Groce admitted in his press conference this week that the level of toughness and togetherness has been inconsistent from game-to-game. This is an Illinois roster that put up 74 points against Indiana and then struggled to score 43 against Nebraska. The defensive intensity has been all over the place as well; at times it can look stifling, but by the end of games the players look absolutely gassed.
Some of that can be attributed to the injuries this roster has been plagued with, but now that Cosby and Rice seem to be close to returning to game action, this team needs to be able to put together back-to-back excellent performances on both sides of the ball. And with home games against Penn State and Rutgers on deck, this may be the Illini's first great opportunity to do so.
Regardless of whether or not Cosby and Rice play a lot of minutes, the Illini should win this game. The Nittany Lions are riding momentum after two straight wins, and Newbill is a force to be reckoned with, but Illinois is favored and should win this game at home. Illinois has held its opponents to under 70 points in all-but-one of their thirteen wins this year, so keep Penn State in the 50's or 60's and you're giving yourself a great chance to succeed. But matchups between these two teams always seem to end up closer than they should be, so I'll go with an eight-point win for the boys in orange and blue.
Illinois 74, Penn State 66