Illinois at No. 9 Penn State: Three In The Key Preview & Prediction
Following 14 conference games this season, Illinois is the lowest-scoring team in the Big Ten Conference with one of the lowest shooting percentages. The Illini (16-9, 8-6 in Big Ten) are coming off a blowout loss where they posted only 57 points and are likely still without its leading scorer in Ayo Dosunmu, who is still dealing with a left leg injury suffered last week.
None of those previously mentioned items are concerning to Illinois head coach Brad Underwood. The Illini third-year coach is more focused on mental mistakes and execution errors on the defensive end.
"Coming off the Rutgers game, was a game of mistakes - a game of errors," Underwood said. "We can talk all we want about the offensive end. The defensive end and the transition (at Rutgers) was very poor. By far and away, the worst execution we've had on that end of the floor we've had all year."
Defensive issues are a new problem for Underwood and his staff as Illinois already has three Big Ten road wins this season due to the idea of their defensive effort, intensity and execution has traveled. The Illini are second in the Big Ten in scoring defense during league play with opponents getting just 63.6 points per game. Illinois also ranks fourth in field goal percentage defense (40.7%) and third in 3-point percentage defense (31.4%) in conference games.
The defensive task certainly doesn't get any easier by playing at No. 9 Penn State (20-5, 10-4) as the Nittany Lions are on a eight-game winning streak as one of the nation's top surprise teams during the 2019-20 season.
For a team like Underwood's trying to rebound from several defensive breakdowns, the last thing you'll likely want to see is the league's fourth-leading scorer and a matchup nightmare at the forward spot - enter Lamar Stevens. Stevens is the reigning national and Big Ten player of the week as the 6-foot-8 senior has 40 career games of 20 or more points.
"There are certain guys that you can play great defense on and they still make shots. He's one of them," Underwood said of Stevens. "You got to take away his easy points, his offensive rebound putbacks, and threes in transition. You have to make him shot difficult shots knowing he'll make some. That's what next-level guys do."
Game 26: Illinois at No. 9 Penn State
Date/Time/Place: Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020: 5:30 p.m. CST, Bryce Jordan Center, State College, Pa.
Records: Illinois 16-9, 8-6 in Big Ten; 12-21, 7-13 in Big Ten Conference in 2018-19. Penn State 20-5, 10-4 in Big Ten; 14-18 7-13 in Big Ten Conference in 2018-19.
Line: Penn State by 6.5
Series notes: Illinois leads the all-time series 28-19 but the Illini Illinois are looking to end a six-game skid against Penn State. Illinois’ last victory over the Nittany Lions was Jan. 31, 2015 in Champaign. The Illini’s last win at the Jordan Center, meanwhile, came on Feb. 9, 2014. Illinois has dropped 18 straight against Top 25 opponents in true road games. Illinois beat No. 13 Maryland last season at Madison Square Garden, but the Illini’s last victory on a ranked team’s home court was a 66-63 win at No. 24 Iowa on March 8, 2014, on a Jon Ekey three with 0.5 left. Illinois’ last road win over a Top-10 team was an 85-73 victory at No. 10 Gonzaga on Dec. 8, 2012. The Illini’s last conference road win against a Top-10 team, meanwhile, was a 71-67 overtime victory at No. 9 Purdue on Dec. 30, 2008.
TV: FS1 - Joe Davis (PBP), Donny Marshall (Analyst) - Both coaches will wear a live microphone, giving viewers the chance to hear directly from the sidelines and locker rooms from tipoff through the final whistle with virtually no interruption.
Radio (Illinois): Brian Barnhart (PBP), Doug Altenberger (analyst) - The broadcast can be heard live on TuneIn online radio, Sirius/XM 195 and at FightingIllini.com.
Before every game of the 2019-20 season, we take a look at three things you’ll want to watch for after the tip.
1) So...who guards Lamar Stevens?
If he were in the starting lineup, the answer might be Giorgi Bezhanishvili because at 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds, he's the only non-center who could keep Stevens off the glass and force him to shoot jump shots. However, Bezhanishvili has been dropkicked to the bench so he can manage his energy and get back on track before the most important stretch for the Illini. Not to mention the idea that those positive ideas for Bezhanishvili being the matchup killer discounts Stevens' quickness with and without the ball and his ability to well, hit those jump shots if given a look at the basket. With the four-guard lineup that Underwood implemented at Rutgers, the assignment may go to the team's best defender no matter the position: Da'Monte Williams. Williams has been given assignments as tall as Purdue's 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms and Maryland point guard Anthony Cowan. If Underwood wants to turn to somebody who he trusts, Williams is probably the option as he's stated before that he doesn't expect many defensive issues with Williams' execution. The issue with Williams at Rutgers is he picked up two early fouls and the Illini will need big offensive performances from Trent Frazier and Alan Griffin on the perimeter to offset Williams' offensive inefficiencies.
2) Kofi Cockburn has to build momentum off a solid Rutgers game
Of course, this could be written every matchup where the 7-foot, 290-pound center steps on the floor for the Illini. However, it needs to be addressed again: Kofi Cockburn needs to establish his matchup advantage. Penn State has relied on the double-double machine in the middle named Mike Watkins. Watkins, a senior from Philadelphia, took sole possession of the second spot on Penn State's career double-double list in the season opener and he now has seven for the 2019-20 campaign for 32 for his career. However, at 6-foot-9 and 252 pounds, he can't handle Cockburn when the freshman has his full arsenal working for him. The problem is in Big Ten play, whether it has foul trouble or not enough touches, Cockburn is averaging a modest 11.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Tonight Cockburn needs a 20-10 effort and maybe that's too much to ask for a freshman but that's the reality of trying to beat a Big Ten team ranked in the Top 10 in their building. If Cockburn wants to make a late push for the league's freshman of the year honor, you'd think he'd need to be the best player on the floor in State College.
3) Can Trent Frazier find his shooting touch?
Trent Frazier said Monday that he's confident putting up hundreds of shots in the Uben Center practice facility will help him turn his shooting woes around. The cold reality is without the services of Ayo Dosunmu, Frazier better start finding the bottom of the net and soon. In his third season of college basketball, Frazier has seen his field percentage drop from 41.1 to 35 and his three-point shooting percentage drop from 40.6 to 34.4. In his last three games, Frazier has connected on just 4 of 25 shots and for a team currently sitting on the bottom of the league in scoring, the 6-foot-2 guard has to get to find ways to knock down open looks because they were there at Rutgers and the 2 of 13 stalled out the Illini offense.
Prediction: No. 9 Penn State 68, Illinois 59
Without Dosunmu, the only way Illinois can win is if Frazier finds his shooting stroke AND Cockburn controls the paint by himself without picking up fouls. The Illini will also probably need a solid game from Bezhanishvili and the encouraging part of that equation is he averaged 16 points per game last year against the Nittany Lions. The discouraging part is at several times Bezhanishvili has seemingly lost what made him a surprise freshman contributor from a year ago. I know a lot of people want to give Iowa's Luka Garza the player of the year away but it is games like this where I think you'll see my (unofficial) vote go to Stevens as he tries to lead Penn State to the school's first-ever conference regular-season title.