The Illini (11-19, 7-12) close the regular season Sunday afternoon at Penn St (13-17, 6-13). The Nittany Lions won the first matchup between these two in Champaign on Feb. 23.
Since that matchup, the Illini have trended down, losing two of their last three. With the Big Ten Tournament starting next week, the Illini need to regain the mojo they had in wins over Michigan State and at Ohio State.
Sunday’s matchup at Penn State is an opportunity for the Illini to do just that. A win will give the Illini some much needed confidence heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
So, what do the Illini have to do to get a win at Penn State?
Giorgi, Ayo, Frazier, and Feliz must maintain their high level of play.
The foursome of Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier, and Andres Feliz were a bright spot for the Illini against Indiana. Frazier had 13 points on 3 of 4 shooting from behind the arc while the other three made their presence known:
These three have been the best players for the season as a whole, albeit no one has really earned the title of “most consistent.” Giorgi had 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting, Ayo had a team-high 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting (3-of-5 from beyond the arc), and Andres had 11 points on 3-of-6 shooting.
In order to be competitive, the Illini need these four players to keep playing well on offense. The current state of Illini’s defense leaves them little room for any drop off on offense. This is an overwhelming — but unfortunately necessary — load for the offense.
Defense needs to wreak some havoc
The Illini defense was horrid against Indiana on Thursday. The Hoosiers scored 52 first half points and basically had an unencumbered path to the basket. As TCR’s Mark Schaer pointed out, when Brad Underwood’s pressure defense fails to wreak havoc, the Illini’s opponents have little to no problems scoring.
The real issue was the lack of turnovers. Illinois had just four turnovers midway through the second half — which is great — but Indiana had the same number. Underwood’s pressure defense thrives on forcing turnovers in the half-court, and when the number is that low, things go from bad to worse very quickly.
This problem manifested itself against Indiana. The lack of turnovers against the Hoosiers cost the Illini dearly. Granted, Indiana is better than Penn State but the Nittany Lions have an All-Big Ten type of player in Lamar Stevens who can punish the Illini defense. In the first matchup against the Illini, Stevens scored 25 point on 8-12 shooting.
So, if the Illini fail to wreak havoc, Stevens could easily have another field day.
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