Penn State vs Illinois Preview: One Last Hurdle Before the Final Stretch Can Begin

By Eric Gibson on February 11, 2018 at 9:50 am
Trent Frazier

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois Fighting Illini
12-13 (2-10 B1G)
7:00 p.m. EST - Sunday, February 11, 2018
University Park, PA
TV Info: Big Ten Network | Live Stream
KenPom Rank: 97
Vegas Line: Penn State -2.0, 57%

Before Penn State can focus on building its resumé, the Nittany Lions have one more business trip against Illinois this evening. The 2-10 Fighting Illini fit the bill as a trap game for the potentially-disinterested Lions. With four quality opponents on the horizon, there's not a whole lot to gain from this game, but a loss would be a momentum-killing blow to any realistic hopes of dancing. You gotta beat who you are suppose to beat at this stage if you want to be taken seriously as a bubble team. 

The Illini do not have much to write home about in their first season with new head coach Brad Underwood. They did beat Missouri in the Braggin' Rights game, but they've accomplished very little in the Big Ten outside of home wins versus Rutgers and Indiana. This will be the fifth straight season Illinois misses out on the Tournament, which is still surprising for a program that was running this league in the aughts.

Underwood has not had the immediate impact with the Illini in his first year like he had at his two previous jobs. At his first head gig, he took over a successful program at Stephen F. Austin that went 27-5 (16-2) the year prior. While he certainly made an impression on the team's style of play, the players he inherited fueled his dominating three-year run through the Southland conference.

He then jumped to Oklahoma State where he took a 3-15 Cowboys team and transformed them into the most efficient offense in the country last year. It was a remarkable turnaround, but he did it behind a top-25 recruit in Juwan Evans leading the way. Still, how quickly he achieved success at each school was eye-opening, even if he inherited the talent that made it possible in the first place. 

There hasn't been a one-year miracle turnaround in Champaign. Illinois lacks the shooting firepower needed for a competent offense, and its high pressure defense doesn't have the overwhelming length or athleticism to be a consistent strength. They are good at forcing turnovers from their opponents, but it has not made a huge difference in their overall efficiency numbers. They have a couple of nice underclassmen with bright futures, but there's much work to be done to get this program back to where it was. 

Projected Starters
Penn State   illinois
No. 10 - Tony Carr - 6'5 - So. PG No. 1 - Trent Frazier - 6'1 - Fr.
No. 33 - Shep Garner - 6'2 - Sr. SG No. 24 - Mark Alstork - 6'5 - Gr.
No. 23 - Josh Reaves - 6'4 - Jr. SF No. 2 - Kipper Nichols - 6'6 - So.
No. 11 - Lamar Stevens - 6'8 - So. PF No. 12 - Leron Black - 6'7 - RS Jr.
No. 24 - Mike Watkins - 6'9 - RS So. C No. 43 - Michael Finke - 6'10 - RS Jr.

This is Underwood's sixth starting lineup combination of the season. There were high expectations for 4-star freshman Mark Smith, Underwood's first high school recruit last spring, but he has struggled in his first season of college and no longer starts. Mark Alstork is a graduate-transfer from Wright State that had gaudy numbers in the Horizon league, but he also has been a disappointment for the Illini. Both players average less than seven points per game and are shooting under 40 eFG%. 

Scouting Report

In fairness to Underwood, it's not unreasonable for him to use youth as an excuse for this team's woes as they are one of the top-50 most inexperienced teams in the country. They only have four scholarship upperclassmen including Leron Black, their leading scorer at 14.3 points per game. Black is a physical forward that has range out to the three-point line, but he does have a tendency to get in foul trouble. If Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens can put pressure on Black defensively, Penn State should be able to force him out of the game for stretches.  

The hottest Illini player of late has been true freshman Trent Frazier. The southpaw point guard is finding his groove in the Big Ten, as he leads the Illini in scoring in conference games at 15.1 points per game. Last time out he posted 32 points with seven threes in a 78-69 loss to Wisconsin. He might be Josh Reaves' assignment to guard with how ineffective the rest of the Illini's wings have played this season. Whoever picks Frazier up will have to check him out to at least 30-feet or he'll let it fly from deep.

Keys to the Game

ill Four Factors eFG % OReb % TO % FT Rate
Offense (108) 49.5% (225) 35.9% (9) 20.0% (261) 33.5 (173)
Defense (90) 51.5% (212) 31.5% (277) 24.1% (3) 46.2 (343)

When you review the Illini's four factors, there's really only two ways this team could cause problems for their opponents. They are really good on the offensive glass, although that figure has dropped to 31.2 percent in league play. With their poor shooting, the Illini will surely grab some second opportunities since there will be many chances for rebounds. That said, Mike Watkins is the best defensive rebounder in the Big Ten, and he'll have the size advantage over Illinois' frontline of Black, Kipper Nichols, and Michael Finke. 

Illinois also forces a ton of turnovers with their pressure defense that resembles Press Virginia under Bob Huggins, except it's not nearly as effective. Big Ten Geeks wrote about the flaws of this strategy all the way back in November. They take a lot of gambles and overplay the passing lanes, which can leave them vulnerable to wide open opportunities when the press is broken. Tony Carr is not a point guard that's easily rattled by pressure, so I like Penn State's chances to neutralize these two advantages for Illinois.


While road games always leave the door open for madness, I'm still confident in Penn State taking care of business with ease today. That's a dangerous pick for a team that's finally hearing some legit buzz for the first time this season and could be looking ahead. However, the Lions have played too well in recent weeks behind emerging leadership from Josh Reaves and Tony Carr to think they'll lay an egg today. As long as the frontcourt plays under control and out of foul trouble, Penn State comfortably pulls this one out. Penn State 82 Illinois 69