Illinois Basketball had a rough senior night on Thursday, but they’re presented with one last opportunity to notch a conference win on the road at Penn State on Sunday. Ending the season with a victory would help to put the Illini above the other teams currently near the lower end of the Big Ten standings.
Illinois had absolutely no answer for Indiana’s Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan in the paint on Thursday night. Penn State will no doubt try to emulate Indiana’s success with Lamar Stevens, who similarly dominated the Illini in the previous match up by scoring 25 points. It’s no secret that Penn State is going to use Lamar Stevens in the same manner this time around, but can Illinois stop them?
The answer will depend largely on Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who must be as aggressive on defense as he is on offense. Especially if he is going to stop drives like this one from PSU’s match up with the Scarlet Knights on Wednesday:
Lamar Stevens and Penn State will punish open looks like this one given up by Illinois on Thursday night:
The defensive side of the game is very complex, and it takes years to master even ordinary collegiate defensive schemes. Giorgi is way ahead of most freshman big men on the offensive side, but learning Brad Underwood’s complex and relatively unusual defense is no easy task.
Adonis De La Rosa and Kipper Nichols are also solid offensively at times coming off the bench, but must grab more rebounds to make a significant impact.
The Other Guys
Guards Rasir Bolton and Josh Reaves are the next highest scoring players for the Nittany Lions following Stevens, and both played well against Illinois earlier this year. Penn State isn’t a team that is going to beat you on the perimeter, as Bolton leads the team with a 37% three-point percentage and few other players come close. Mike Watkins grabbed 12 boards for Penn State during their last game against the Illini, and he can’t be allowed to repeat that performance if Illinois is going to win this game.
Penn State is a talented team that has already overtaken the Illini in Champaign this season, and they now have a chance to sweep Illinois on their home court. The Illini have improved dramatically over the course of this season, and they should be proud of their progress. That said, just about every other team at the lower end of the conference also appears to be trending upward, including Penn State, Rutgers, Indiana, and Northwestern.
If the Illini start falling behind, or even just slow down their rate of improvement, they could find themselves buried by their peers going into next season. Ending the year with a conference road win would do much to change that outlook.
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