The No. 22 Illinois Fighting Illini (15-3 overall, 4-1 in conference) travel to State College, PA to face off against Penn State (9-10, 1-5) on Thursday.
The Illini have not played since their win over No. 6 Ohio State last week, while the struggling Nittany Lions lost their third consecutive game to Minnesota.
The Illini have been favored in 26 of the last 27 games with Penn State. Not a surprise considering that the Illini have maintained an average margin of victory of 15 points over the Nittany Lions in its 24 wins.
Look for the Illini to extend its dominance over Penn State with ease on Thursday night.
Here are four keys to a Fighting Illini victory.
Penn State's Talor Battle was the speedy guard capable of putting Penn State's entire offense on his shoulders.
Battle has graduated and moved on to play in Germany, but his protege, Tim Frazier, has quickly taken the reigns as PSU's go-to point guard who seemingly does it all.
The junior currently leads the Big Ten conference in overall points (18.2 PPG), minutes played, free throws attempted and made and assists.
Frazier could start on any team in the conference.
If the Illini hope to contain Frazier's impact, they must:
- Limit his offensive touches
- Assign DJ Richardson to play defense
- Force Frazier into undesirable situations. Frazier leads the conference in turnovers.
Illinois is a more productive basketball team on offense and defense when Meyers Leonard takes residence underneath the basket.
Unfortunately, the Illinois sophomore has somewhat of a bad habit.
Leonard sometimes drifts out of position beyond the arc, which allows the defense to limit their attention towards interior defense.
He is much more productive—along with the entire offense—when he is a fixture on the block. This allows defenses to collapse, create free-throw opportunities and free up perimeter shooters.
Leonard's work against Ohio State All-American Jared Sullinger is the reason why. Leonard scored 14 points, forced the defense to collapse and helped open up teammate Brandon Paul to sink 8-of-10 three-point field goals.
Penn State sophomore Billy Oliver and freshman Peter Alexis will not provide much of a challenge to Leonard's offensive prowess.
Nevertheless, Leonard needs to stick to the script and stay underneath the basket.
Illinois basketball fans and members of Orange Krush are still talking about the Illini's upset win over No. 6 Ohio State.
It will serve as the signature win of the season. The selection committee will use it as a tool to determine the Illini's destination in March. Brandon Paul will never forget the night he scored 43 points.
Fans are under no obligation to "start looking ahead" to the next game. Coaches and players, however, play under a different set of rules.
If the Illini are not careful, falling victim to a classic trap game could blow out the flickering glow of promise that came with last week's victory.
Listed below are several trap games from the Weber era:
- 2008-2009 Illinois beats Wisconsin, then loses at Minnesota, 36-59
- 2008-2009 Illinois beats Indiana in Bloomington, then loses at home to Penn State, 33-38
- 2009-2010 Illinois beats Michigan in Ann Arbor, then loses at home to Minnesota, 60-62
- 2005-2006 No. 6 Illinois beats No. 7 Michigan State, then loses at Iowa, 48-63
For as important as the Ohio State win was a week ago, a loss Thursday would neutralize its effect on Selection Sunday.
Illinois head coach Bruce Weber plans to get senior point guard Sam Maniscalco back into the lineup on Thursday.
The Bradley transfer has started 15 games for the Illini, but went out with a recurring ankle injury prior to the Jan. 7 contest against Nebraska.
“We’ll know more as we put a little more stress on it,’’ Weber told the State Journal-Review. “We’ll have him go a little more today. Tomorrow, we’ll probably ease off a little bit and just shoot. We’ll hope that he makes some progress.
“Our goal would be to have him for 10 to 15 minutes.’’
This is good news for Illini fans when considering that freshman reserve Tracy Abrams has racked up 29 turnovers to Maniscalco's 19.