The Illini are coming off one of the biggest regular-season wins in the Brad Underwood era, upsetting No. 2 Texas in overtime Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. They will hope to keep the momentum up against Penn State.
Coming into this season, the Illini lost their top four scorers and had a team full of unproven youngsters and transfers. This hasn’t stopped the Illini as they have had two comeback wins against top-10 opponents and have been competitive in two top-15 losses.
On Saturday morning, the Illini will face Penn State, in a trap game. Penn State will be looking for a marquee win for its resume while the Illini hope to get their first conference win.
Let’s preview what Penn State will look like.
The Nittany Lions’ season so far
Micah Shrewsberry begins his second season with a young Penn State team that struggled immensely last year.
This season they have started 6-3, including a close win against Butler and losses to Clemson and Virginia Tech. On Wednesday night, they played a close game against Michigan State but ultimately faltered in the last few minutes due to poor three-point shooting.
Penn State has lived and died by the three this season as it leads the Big Ten in three-point percentage. They have shot the fifth-most three-pointers this season but also commit many turnovers, which should play into the hands of Illinois’ pressure defense.
PSU plays like Illinois, as they also lack size so they will hope to spread out their guards to create opportunities and push the tempo to get easy baskets. Unlike Illinois, on the defensive end, they have struggled immensely this season, as KenPom ranks them 56th in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Players to Watch
Pickett is the primary playmaker for Penn State and he was on the Preseason All-Big Ten Team. He has been consistent this season, scoring 15 points and averaging 7 rebounds and assists, and does a bit of everything for the Nittany Lions. Pickett can create his shot and make a quick pass to find an open teammate. Illinois will put a more athletic defender on him which has slowed him down in the past.
Lundy also does a bit of everything for the Nittany Lions as he has 46% from three while averaging 13 points. He had a big game against Clemson scoring 23 points, helping them send the game to overtime. Terrence Shannon will probably see a lot of him, as on the defensive end Lundy gets the toughest defensive assignment.
If you remember, in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Wynter (on Drexel) was shut down by Trent Frazer as he was held to 6 points. He has transferred to Penn State and will have an opportunity to exact revenge. He is another 3-and-D player for the Nittany Lions as he shoots 46% from three and averages 11 points. By slowing down Pickett, it will prevent players like Wynter from getting open looks.
On a short Penn State team, Njie is the tallest Penn State player at 6-foot-10 and was a four-star recruit. He is Penn State’s second-highest-rated player of all time and so far has averaged 4 points. The position of the center is a huge question for Penn State, as they will primarily play small, but they don’t have the Dain Dainja-like player who can come off the bench for them and score points.
- Myles Dread: Returning player and probably the best three-point shooter for the Nittany Lions, and rarely shoots from two, but this has worked as he has hit 45% of three-pointers.
- Andrew Funk: Transfer, from Bucknell, who played a big role for them last year and can shoot the three as he has averaged 11 points and 36% from deep.
What does Illinois need to do to win?
This Penn State team looks like Illinois in size and style of play. Both teams like to play fast and shoot the three which will result in a fast-paced game with a lot of scoring. This game will be an important opportunity for the Illinois pressure defense to positively impact the game. Slowing the Nittany Lions down it will force them to create shots and rebound the ball.
The Illini will also need to expose Penn State’s lack of height and athleticism in the paint, which they struggled a bit against Syracuse. At points of the Texas game, the Illini offense felt unorganized and challenged the Texas defense straight up. This gives Brad Underwood an opportunity to gameplan for this situation and run specific plays to get Dain Dainja easy baskets.
This game is going to be a challenge for the Illini, and it will probably come down to the final few minutes. Penn State is a hungry young team energized to play and can score quickly when their threes are falling. The Illini might come out slow so they will rely on their superior talent in Coleman Hawkins and Terrence Shannon to score big buckets.