Penn State at Illinois Preview: Can the Nittany Lions Keep It Rolling?

By Matt Simco on February 23, 2019 at 8:10 am
Feb 5, 2019; Champaign, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili (15), guard Ayo Dosunmu (11), forward Kipper Nichols (2), guard Andres Feliz (10), and guard Da'Monte Williams (20) await the end of a timeout during the second half against the Michigan State Spartans at State Farm Center.
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports
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Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois Fighting Illini
10-16 (6-9 Big Ten)
Roster / Schedule
Noon EST - Saturday, Feb. 23
State Farm Center
Champaign, IL
Watch Info: BTN/BTN2Go
KenPom Rank: 62
Vegas Line: Illinois -2.5

Things have been looking better for Penn State (10-16, 3-12) as of late. The hump has been finally climbed, and all of a sudden Pat Chambers' squad looks like they can play with anyone in the Big Ten. After three wins in five games, the Nittany Lions are no longer in sole possession of last place (thanks Northwestern) and are playing their best basketball since their NIT triumph last season. On Saturday at noon, Penn State will travel to Champaign, Illinois to face off against the Illinois Fighting Illini - who are feeling just as optimistic lately.

All season, Lamar Stevens has been playing well, averaging 19.5 points and 8 rebounds. Unfortunately, he was the only consistent Nittany Lion during Penn State's seven-game losing streak. Over the last five games, that much-needed help has come from the backcourt duo of Jamari Wheeler and Rasir Bolton. Despite not showing up in the stat sheet, Wheeler has been a catalyst for this team, controlling the pace of play with both his smart offensive play and his tenacious defense that has been downright devastating for opponents. He's now leading the Big Ten in steal rate during conference play (5.3%) after averaging 3.2 steals over the last five games.  

Bolton has shown his potential in spurts throughout the early stretches of this season but never seemed to be able to pull it together for multiple games in a row. The freshman has found that consistency, scoring double-digit points over the past five games, including 21 in Tuesday's victory against Nebraska. He's also been shooting 52.6% from deep over that five game stretch. Bolton is playing with much more maturity and composure as of late, and having him as a consistent second scorer has been huge for the Nittany Lions.

Projected Starters
Penn State   Illinois
Jamari Wheeler - 6'1" - Soph 1 Trent Frazier - 6'1" - Soph.
Rasir Bolton - 6'2" - Fr. 2 Da'monte Williams - 6'3" - Soph.
Josh Reaves - 6'4" - Sr. 3 Ayo Dosunmu - 6'5" - Fr.
Lamar Stevens - 6'8" - Jr. 4 Aaron Jordan - 6'5" - Sr.
John Harrar - 6'8" - Soph. 5 Giorgi Bezhanishvili - 6'9" - Fr.

Penn State and Illinois (10-16, 6-9) are both teams that are heading in similar directions. The Illini began conference play with a 1-7 record but caught fire beginning Saturday, January 26th, when they beat  a then-No. 13 ranked Maryland at Madison Square Garden. This started a six-game stretch where Brad Underwood's team won five out of six, including an impressive victory over the then No. 9 Michigan State.

The Fighting Illini are led by their young trio in guards Trent Frazier and Ayo Dosumnu and forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Frazier, the elder statesman of the bunch, scores 14.4 points per game on an impressive 41.5% from deep. The 6'1 sophomore is a dynamic scorer and can beat you off the dribble or with his jump shot. Dosumnu came in as a heralded five-star freshman and for the most part has lived up to the billing, averaging 14.1 points and a team-high 3.2 assists per contest. Bezhanishvili has been one of the most surprising stories in the Big Ten, averaging 12.1 points per game on 58.9% shooting inside the arc. The 6'9 freshman from Georgia (the country) also leads Illinois in rebounding with five per game.  

This will be a close game, and I believe that the two keys to victory for Penn State will be to control the boards and to get a second scorer in support of Stevens. The Nittany Lions have been a very good rebounding team during their positive stretch and should have success against an Illinois team stands 300th nationally in defensive rebounding rate. As long as the Nittany Lions make sure they don't lose Bezhansishvili, who has not been particularly impressive on the glass (only a 12.5% defensive rebounding rate), they should be able to get a few more extra possessions - which are always huge in close games. As for that second scorer - if Bolton can continue playing with the same confidence he has of late then Penn State suddenly becomes a scary matchup for any team.

Prediction

This will be a hard-fought, competitive game that will come down to the wire. I think Penn State goes on an early run to get ahead, but Illinois grabs the lead for much of the second half. The game will come down to whether Penn State can steal it at the end, and I think they'll just have enough to get it done. Penn State 69, Illinois 68.

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