No. 9 Penn State vs. Illinois Preview: Red Hot Lions Look to Keep It Going Against Struggling Illini

By Dan Smith on February 18, 2020 at 8:39 am
Feb 2, 2020; Iowa City, Iowa, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini center Kofi Cockburn (21) in action against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Mandatory Credit:
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
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Illinois logo
Illinois Fighting Illini
16-9 (8-6 Big Ten)
Roster / Schedule
6:30 p.m. ET - Tuesday, February 18
Bryce Jordan Center
University Park, PA
Watch Info: FS1/FoxSportsGo
KenPom Rank: 32
Vegas Line: Penn State -6.5

Last season, Penn State and Illinois both finished 7-13 in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions were 14-18 overall, with the Fighting Illini were 12-21. There were signs that things may improve for both teams heading into 2019-20, but it seemed clear that both programs held a place towards the middle or bottom of the conference.

What a difference a year has made for each. We already know about ninth-ranked Penn State's meteoric rise, but Illinois' at one point would have looked even more surprising, leaving aside historical trends. Before Penn State's own winning streak, Illinois had a seven-game winning streak of their own, sporting quality road wins against Wisconsin, Purdue, and Michigan.

The trend has shifted over the last four games. After their January 30 win at home against Minnesota, the Illini entered a brutal stretch of five games to start February. A road loss to Iowa was followed by a loss at home to conference leader Maryland. The biggest blow came in their 70-69 home loss to Michigan State, as leading scorer Ayo Dosunmu went down with a left leg injury on the game's final play.

The good news for Illinois is that Dosunmu avoided what initially appeared to be a serious knee injury and is currently "day-to-day." However, he missed Saturday's game against Rutgers, and the shorthanded Illini dropped their fourth straight. His status for tonight's game in Happy Valley is unknown, but it would not be surprising to see head coach Brad Underwood without his sophomore wing once again.

Projected Starters
Penn State   Purdue
Jamari Wheeler - 6'1" - Jr. 1 Trent Frazier - 6'2" - Jr.
Myles Dread - 6'4" - So. 2 Andre Feliz - 6'2" - Sr. 
Seth Lundy - 6'6" - Fr. 3 Da'Monte Williams - 6'3" - Jr.
Lamar Stevens - 6'8" - Sr. 4 Alan Griffin - 6'5" - So.
John Harrar - 6'9" - Jr. 5 Kofi Cockburn - 7'0" - Fr.

The Illini play a small lineup around freshman center Kofi Cockburn, whether or not the 6-foot-5 Dosunmu is available. Penn State, meanwhile, was still without sophomore starting shooting guard Myreon Jones in their win against Northwestern. Jones has missed three games with an undisclosed illness. With Dread's strong recent play, and Jones either out or not yet at 100 percent, it seems likely that head coach Patrick Chambers will stick with the same lineup Tuesday night.

Scouting Report

Illinois profiles as a solid but not spectacular team in most categories. Their biggest advantage is rebounding, where they are sixth in the nation in offensive rebounding at 36.3 percent. The 7-foot Cockburn leads the way in this category with nine rebounds per game, but Feliz and Griffin hold their own there as well, and reserve center Giori Bezhanishvili adds in nearly five rebounds per game in 25 minutes per game off the bench.

That offensive rebounding is critical, particularly because they are not a good shooting team. Aside from Griffin, who is shooting 40.7% from beyond the arc, no one on the team is making more than a third of their three point attempts. They are last in the Big Ten in field goal percentage in conference play, and only Cockburn, who is shooting 66% from the line, manages to get there consistently. Those second chance opportunities keep them in games.

The Illini manage to defend effectively despite a lack of aggression. They do a good job of preventing easy looks from three and disrupt ball movement, all without putting opponents on the line. That said, the lack of aggression does mean that they do not force many turnovers. A team that can get quality looks against Illinois can make them pay, though that is much easier said than done.

Keys to the Game

1. Don't get killed on the boards. The one clear advantage for Illinois is their offensive rebounding against Penn State's mediocre defensive rebounding. Illinois does not shoot the ball well and won't blow you away with their offensive sets and ball movement. Stay home and box out, and you should be able to keep their offensive contained.

2. Keep getting Dread good looks. It looks like the sophomore wing may be turning a corner from deep after a brutal shooting slump. He still managed to be a key cog with strong defense in his second season. But with Myreon Jones out of the lineup, and Curtis Jones struggling off the bench, his three-point shot is more crucial than at any point so far this season. He has knocked down four threes in back-to-back games.

3. Stay out of foul trouble. This one could be said for Penn State in just about every game. Even at home, Penn State struggles to get calls, and star Lamar Stevens is not exempt. He has picked up his play in recent games, with 33 against Minnesota and 23 against Northwestern. You want him on the floor, and you don't want Illinois' struggling offense to get free opportunities at the line.

Prediction

Penn State has figured out how to play without Myreon Jones in recent games, thanks in large part to Dread once again finding his jumper. Illinois struggled to score against Rutgers without Dosunmu, and heading out on the road against a top ten team on a winning streak likely won't do them any favors. The Nittany Lions need to limit Illinois' second chance opportunities, and if they do so, they should be able to take care of business. Penn State 80, Illinois 64

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