So far this season
Pat Chambers was hired by Penn State in June 2011. John Groce was hired in 2012. Chambers is still at Penn State, and we all know where Groce is now.
Chambers’ win total has never been been outstanding, with his best overall record at Penn State being 18-16 during the 2014-2015 season. This year, however, his team sits at 17-9 and has already surpassed his best Big Ten season with seven wins.
Although they are 7-6 in the Big Ten, they don’t exactly have any marquee wins. That’s okay, because Penn State, much like Nebraska, legitimately has a shot at the tournament this year. It’s not super likely, but you never know.
Probably the only bad loss on Penn State’s schedule was to Rider (71-70 on Dec. 22), but other than that it has been a relatively predictable season for Chambers and Co. The best wins on the schedule were against Northwestern (78-63 on Jan. 5) and over Nebraska in overtime on Jan. 12 (76-74). I will admit that I’ve been pretty impressed by Penn State, but the ceiling in State College for basketball is low in relation to the rest of the Big Ten. If Chambers was at Illinois, he would’ve been gone just like Groce. Still, I give him a lot of credit. He has pretty much has had Illinois’ number during his tenure at Penn State.
Losses, additions, and key players
This is actually not the biggest area that Illinois should be focusing on. Chambers lost three players to graduation, but none of them were huge names. His recruiting class wasn’t exactly stellar, either. There are five names that Illinois should know: Carr, Watkins, Garner, Stevens and Reaves. Those are the five leading scorers for the Nittany Lions, and all five of them average double figures.
In addition, Watkins averages over nine rebounds per game, Carr shoots 46 percent from deep and averages nearly five assists, and Garner shoots better than 40 percent from three-point range. These five guys are pretty much the entire Nittany Lions offense, which is both a positive and a negative for Illinois. The next-highest scoring player (Nazeer Bostick) averages five points per contest, and no other player is above three. If Illinois can get guys like Watkins and Carr into foul trouble early, Chambers will have to go to his bench, which will hopefully allow the defense to really shut down Penn State and cause turnovers.
The problem is that Carr averages over 19 points per contest and Watkins has a huge frame at 6-foot-9 that will be difficult for anyone on Illinois to defend. Plus Shep Garner has been known to cause Illinois problems in the past.
This is pretty much a toss-up. Based on recent history, Shep Garner would be a good pick. Tony Carr is another breakout star in the Big Ten, but I think Mike Watkins will probably cause the most problems during the game.
He is taller than Leron Black, and he is certainly much stronger than Spicy G. We know Finke isn’t the best defender, so Watkins will probably have plenty of opportunities to score in addition to grabbing offensive boards to give Carr and others second-chance points. I would expect Watkins to get a nice double-double — say, 16 & 16? Yeah, that sounds likely — and have a serious impact on tiring out the Illini defense. But, still, any one of those five players I mentioned could go off.
I hate to be negative, but at this point in the season I just have to be realistic.
Illinois is not going to have a postseason, and even though they likely will not get blown out much (if at all), I simply do not see them winning many games. Almost every team in the Big Ten has a serious mismatch problem down low that the Illini can’t defend (see Ethan Happ, Juwan Morgan, Nick Ward, etc.) and even when they are up in games (Iowa, Maryland, etc.), they cannot pull out the victory.
So that probably came off as pretty negative, but that’s the reality I see. I think Black will still get his 13-16 points per game and Trent Frazier will continue to improve, but other than that it will be a pretty dark and gloomy end of the 2017-18 season from here on out. At least this way, if the Ilini can string together any wins, it will be a nice surprise. And the future is much brighter than it was during Groce’s tenure.
Penn State 79, Illinois 70