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‘A clean slate’: Illinois looks for fresh start in Big Ten Tournament

Third time’s a charm, right?

Syndication: Journal-Courier Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — After a nail-biting loss against the juggernaut of the Big Ten, Purdue, the Illini have a third matchup with the team they’ve struggled with the most this season: Penn State.

Illinois is heading into the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 7 seed and will face off against the No. 10 seed Nittany Lions on Thursday night.

Penn State has dominated the Illini this season, winning both games by a combined 27 points. Senior guard Jalen Pickett, who was named to The Sporting News’ Second-Team All-American, put up a career high 41 points in Penn State’s most recent win over Illinois.

“I think if Zach [Edey] wasn’t the MVP of our league, Pickett would be,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “We’ve not guarded him very well.”

On the brighter side, Terrence Shannon Jr. was named First Team All-Big Ten and Matthew Mayer was named to the Third Team. Shannon was grateful, but also frustrated with Coleman Hawkins being left off the honors.

“I got it because of my teammates, because of people like Coleman who didn’t make it,” Shannon said. “I don’t think people realize how valuable he is to our team. He’s gonna show them that in March, they’re gonna wish that they put him All-League.”

Underwood echoed this same opinion and felt Hawkins was snubbed in the voting.

“I was devastated that he wasn’t on the All-Defensive team,” Underwood said. “We would be lost without him and I was bothered by that.”

Hawkins kept it light and laughed about the lack of selection, expressing he’s more worried about the games moving forward.

“It’s whatever, it doesn’t really bother me for real,” Hawkins said. “I just know I’m important to this team and that’s really all that matters.”

Illinois has had a tendency to start off sluggish this season and play its best ball in the last 20 minutes of each game. The guys know that this trend can’t continue if they want to win moving forward.

“Our starts haven’t been good, we haven’t played a full 40-minute game against a good team all year,” Shannon said. “If we play the way we play in the second half for a full 40 minutes, I don’t think anybody can beat us in the country.”

Penn State has had its way with the Illini defense in both games this season. The guys know that if they want any chance to win the third time around, they’re going to have to lock down against the Nittany Lions’ talented shooters.

“We were kind of soft on Pickett early and he got going and didn’t look back,” Hawkins said. “Once we crawl up in them and actually really guard them, put pressure on them, I think we’ll be at our best.”

The fact that Illinois has lost to the No. 10 seed multiple times this year further proves the story of this season: There’s not a single easy game in this conference. Any team can win any game on any given day.

Illinois plays Penn State this Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the United Center. The Fighting Illini are looking to put together a string of wins to give themselves a chance to win this tournament before the start of the big dance.