Penn State at No. 22 Illinois Preview: Lions Looking for Revenge in Champaign

By Brad Peterson on January 19, 2021 at 8:00 am
Illinois Basketball Team
© Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
No. 22 Illinois Fighting Illini
9-5 (5-3 B1G)
8:30 p.m. EST – Tuesday, Jan. 19
State Farm Center
Champaign, IL
KenPom Rank: 11

Despite the extended layoff due to COVID-19 issues within the program, Penn State showed some fight on the road in West Lafayette. Though they ultimately fell 80-72 to Purdue, the team could have been much rustier after having four consecutive games postponed. In the end, though, the team shot just 32.9% from the floor and 61.5% from the free-throw line, while the Boilermakers shot 40.3% from the field and a much healthier 72.7% from the stripe. Myreon Jones led all scorers with 23 points and John Harrar recorded a double-double (14 points, 14 rebounds) but Purdue spread the ball around to counter the aggressive Penn State defense (all five starters put up 10+ points).

Now, Jim Ferry's squad will hope to get back on track against the always-tough Fighting Illini who come in on a two-game losing streak of their own.

Projected Starters
Penn State Illinois
G Jamari Wheeler - 6'1" - Sr. G Trent Frazier - 6'2" - Sr.
G Myreon Jones - 6'3" - Jr. G Adam Miller - 6'3" - Fr.
G Izaiah Brockington - 6'4" - Jr. G Da'Monte Williams - 6'3" - Sr.
F Seth Lundy - 6'6" - So. G Ayo Dosunmu - 6'5" - Jr.
F John Harrar - 6'9" -  Sr. C Kofi Cockburn - 7'0" - So.

Previous Matchup

The first meeting between these two teams followed an all-too-familiar script for Penn State basketball fans. After racing out to a 19-4 lead thanks to some impossibly hot shooting, the Illini slowly but surely fought their way back before flying past the Lions for a 98-81 victory in the Bryce Jordan Center back in late December. The 98 points scored were the most in regulation in a Big Ten game since 1995.

As usual, Illinois was led by Ayo Dosunmu’s 30 points, 21 of which came in the second half. Kofi Cockburn added 23 and Andre Curbelo chipped in 15. Jones and Izaiah Brockington each had 21 for the blue and white in the loss.

Scouting Report

Illinois has been an offensive juggernaut for most of the season, averaging 83.1 PPG (19th in the nation) but has been held under 70 points in three of its last four contests. Still, the offense has managed to remain impressive and efficient during that span as the Illini are No. 11 in the nation in FG% at 51.3%, No. 4 in the nation in rebound margin at +11, and they average 21.5 FT attempts per game while shooting just over 40% from behind the arc. Needless to say, Brad Underwood’s Illini squad is one of the best offensive teams in the country.

Illinois is of course led by the dynamic duo of Dosunmu and Cockburn. The pair are the No. 1 scoring duo in the nation, averaging 39.5 PPG between them and accounting for 47.6% of the Illini’s points. The pair combined to score 53 in the win at the BJC in December.

Dosunmu is one of the most explosive guards in the country and is sixth in the nation at 22.4 PPG. He can score at all three levels with a killer crossover, which he used to ice the game at the BJC last February in the Illini’s 62-56 win. He’s shooting nearly 42% from deep, 82% from the FT stripe, and is in the top-20 in the nation in field goals and free throws made. He’s averaged 22 PPG in four career games against Penn State. Stopping him, or at least slowing him down, will be key to trying to pull out a W.

Cockburn is the perfect inside complement to Dosunmu. The 7’0", 285 lb. Cockburn is a double-double machine, leading the nation with 10, and averaging a double-double for the season at 17.1 PPG and 10.1 RPG. Cockburn is third in the nation in FG% at 70.8% and 20th in rebounding at 10.1 RPG.

No other player averages double figures in scoring for Illinois. Trent Frazier and Andre Curbelo run the show and the team moves the ball well, averaging 17 assists per game. On the defensive end, they can lose intensity. They have given up double-digit runs to opponents in 7 of their 8 conference games.

keys to the game

  • Don't let Cockburn get comfortable. Looking at the numbers Cockburn is putting up, it's clear that not much can be done to stop him from producing. But what John Harrar and Penn State's other interior defenders can do is slow him down by not letting him catch it deep (at least not without resistance). They must work hard to get him off the block before the catch. For as great as he is, Cockburn doesn't have much range as a finisher. He is also a poor free-throw shooter (58%) so if he is able to get to the basket, fouling hard and avoiding and-ones may not be a bad strategy.
  • Keep Ayo out of the paint. This will be easier said than done, but the guards need to limit Dosunmu's ability to drive and finish or dish for an easy bucket. While he is a good perimeter shooter, taking away his ability to control the game off the dribble is critical for minimizing his impact.
  • Play defense with feet, not hands. Penn State is No. 317 in the country in fouling, averaging 21 fouls per game. While the Illini aren't a good free-throw shooting team, the Lions can't send them to the line over and over. Moving their feet and not getting caught reaching and grabbing will go a long way to helping these Lions cut down on freebies from the stripe.


The Nittany Lions are 18-30 all-time vs. Illinois. Before losing the last two, Penn State had won six straight over the Illini, but this is a match-up nightmare for the blue and white. It will take another career day from John Harrar, who is coming off his second career double-double and a career-high 14 points at Purdue, to help neutralize Cockburn. Jones has been hot, coming off his own career-high of 23, and is averaging 21 PPG in his last three games. If Jones can keep draining 3s and get help from Brockington, Sessoms, and Lundy, maybe they can steal one on the road. Alas, Penn State is last among Power 5 conference teams in FG% defense, and Illinois checks in at #11 in FG% which is obviously a bad combination. Unless the presence of Talor Battle on the bench can summon some mojo from the past, I’m afraid Penn State will be leaving the Prairie State with another L.

Illinois 86, Penn State 74