Penn State vs. Illinois Preview: Something to Play for on Senior Day

By Chad Markulics on March 10, 2019 at 8:00 am
Jan 13, 2019; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions guard Josh Reaves (23) is introduced prior to the game against the Michigan State Spartans at Bryce Jordan Center. Michigan State defeated Penn State 71-56.
Matthew O'Haren - USA Today Sports
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Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois Fighting Illini
11-19 (7-12 Big Ten)
Roster / Schedule
Noon EST - Sunday, Mar. 10
Bryce Jordan Center
State College, PA
Watch Info: FS1/Fox Sports Go
KenPom Rank: 76
KenPom Line: PSU -8

If there's any evidence of justice to be found in Penn State's overall dismal 2019 season, it's that one of the program's most important players ever will have something to play for on the day of his final home game as a college athlete. Josh Reaves was the first consensus four-star prep recruit to commit to Penn State under Pat Chambers, passing up offers from Villanova and local mainstays Maryland and Georgetown to carve his own path in State College. And what a path he's carved: Reaves is the only player in school history with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists, and 200 steals, and as of today, he needs nine steals to surpass Ron Brown ('72-'74) as the school's all-time leader in that stat.

Reaves and Deivis Zemgulis will be honored on Senior Day on Sunday afternoon, one that will be meaningful both on and off the court. With a win and a Rutgers loss at Indiana, the Nittany Lions will avoid the dreaded first day of the Big Ten Tournament and open play on Thursday. Minnesota or Ohio State would await PSU in Chicago as they attempt to do the impossible and win the whole damn thing. 

Not to put the cart ahead of the horse, though. Illinois comes to State College with their tail between their legs, having suffered their most comprehensive defeat since January in a 92-74 home defeat to Indiana on Thursday night. The Illini have cooled off considerably since they started 4-0 in February, going 1-4 over the last three weeks of action. The Nittany Lions account for one of those losses, an 83-76 defeat in which PSU's upperclassmen flexed their muscles on both ends leading to a comfortable victory.

Projected Starters
Penn State   Illinois
Jamari Wheeler - 6'1" - Soph 1 Trent Frazier - 6'1" - Soph.
Myles Dread - 6'4" - 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.

Scouting Report

Brad Underwood still has plenty of reason to be optimistic his team can make a run in Chicago. JuCo transfer Andres Feliz has emerged as a primary scoring option over the past four games, which included an über-efficient 26 points on nine attempts from the field and 16-17 shooting at the free throw line in a win at Northwestern. The Illini don't lack for firepower between Feliz, Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier and Giorgi Bezhanishvili, each of whom scored in double-figures in the first meeting between these teams.

Offense in general isn't the problem for Illinois, but when they aren't able to score with their opponent. it weakens their defensive abilities exponentially. Underwood sets his teams up to play fast and defend the length of the floor, but it becomes difficult to set up a pressure defense when the opponent is getting out in transition from rebounds. That's what happened when Penn State went to Champaign — the Nittany Lions controlled the tempo of the game for the entire first half and enough of the second half to send them home with a win. Avoiding turnovers and keeping Illinois off the offensive glass to limit their opportunities will be the key to victory for Penn State.

Prediction

These teams met in Penn State's final home game of the season four years ago — also the final home game for Brandon Taylor, Donovon Jack, Jordan Dickerson, and Devin Foster. The Nittany Lions won a double-OT thriller, 86-79, buoyed by a then career-high 13 points from Reaves, the only player from that either team that day that will see the floor on Sunday. Sentiment won't allow me to pick any other result: Penn State 78, Illinois 73.

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