Illinois Basketball and Penn State Basketball have something in common when it comes to the perception of the two programs at this point in the season.
It’s a tiresome, frustrating-at-times, outwardly-humorous talking point we’ve heard over and over again. It’s some version of “This may not be a great team, but man are they difficult to play against.”
Here’s a look at the 2018-2019 Penn State Nittany Lions:
This is more than just “Oh, this is the opponent’s best player, watch out for him.” Stevens is the true M.V.P. of Nittany Lions Men’s Basketball.
Scoring: At 19.2 points per game, Stevens is the Big Ten’s second-highest leading scorer only behind Purdue’s Carsen Edwards.
Experience: When the ball tips at the State Farm Center on Saturday morning, Lamar Stevens will be starting his 99th game for Penn State. The junior has started every game he’s played in since joining the Nittany Lions, and the former four-star recruit from Philadelphia has more than lived up to the hype.
Length: At 6-foot-8 and weighing 230 pounds, Lamar Stevens is the prototypical, lanky small forward in college basketball. He dominates the mid-range game and can get to the hoop with ease. His rebounding numbers are off the charts, too. Stevens averages an impressive eight rebounds per game.
Comparison: His size and ability to get wherever he wants in the half-court offense is a little reminiscent of former Illini forward Malcolm Hill. Hill was the better passer and more all-around player, while Stevens is a more consistent, high-efficiency scorer and rebounder.
Solid contributing freshmen
Penn State’s 2018 recruiting class finished 11th in the Big Ten, but two freshmen in particular are contributing significant minutes and playing well.
Myles Dread: A shooting guard and high three-star recruit from Washington, D.C., Dread is a regular starter. He averages 8.9 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game.
Rasir Bolton: A combo guard with the ability to play on and off the ball, Bolton is Penn State’s sixth man. He is the leading, reliable bucket-getter when Head Coach Pat Chambers looks to his bench.
Reaves isn’t as dynamic of a passer or scorer as say, Rutgers’ Geo Baker or Ohio State’s C.J. Jackson. He’s not as influential on the offensive end as either of those two lead guards.
And while Jackson and Baker are solid defenders, they pale in comparison to what Josh Reaves is able to do.
Reaves is the catalyst on defense for Penn State. He led the Big Ten in steals a season ago and will do so again this season. At 2.6 steals per game, he leads the conference by a mile.
The Wild, Wild Big Ten Conference
Penn State knocked off Michigan two weeks ago. Illinois beat both Ohio State and Michigan State in the last three weeks. If that’s not proof that anything can happen in Big Ten basketball on any given night, then there’s no appreciation for the competition in this league. Winning games, especially road games is tough.
Penn State took care of business on Tuesday night at home, blowing out the Nebraska Cornhuskers. For the last place team in the conference, Penn State is playing its best basketball of the season and have won three of its last five contests.
We’ll meet again soon
The Illini will wrap up their Big Ten regular season campaign in a rematch against Penn State in two weeks on March 10. This game will be in Happy Valley at the Bryce Jordan Center — the same venue where Penn State upset Michigan and beat a very good Virginia Tech Hokies team back in November in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
It’s hard to win at Penn State. The Illini haven’t done so in five years, and it’ll be important for Illinois to set the tone early in the first matchup this Saturday.
Prediction: Illinois 70, Penn State 62