Penn State vs. Illinois Preview

Story posted January 4, 2014 in Sports, CommRadio by Uriah Tagle

Following a tough 79-63 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten opener, Pat Chambers and the Nittany Lions look to pick up their first conference win of the season against the Illinois Fighting Illini in Champaign on Saturday.

The Fighting Illini have won their last three contests, most recently defeating the Indiana Hoosiers 83-80, in overtime in their Big Ten opener.  The win improved Illinois to 12-2 on the season, after finishing with an 11-2 record in their non-conference games.

For Illinois, the Indiana win provided them their first Big Ten win as well as proof that they can compete within the conference this season.  Redshirt junior guard Rayvonte Rice continued to emerge as one of the best scorers in the Big Ten, erupting for 29 points in the win.

Perhaps the most impressive win of the Fighting Illini’s non-conference slate came on December 21st, against the rival Missouri Tigers in the annual “Braggin’ Rights” game.  Missouri, who was ranked 23rd in the country heading into the game, was dealt their first loss of the season at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.  For Illinois, it was their first win over Missouri since 2008, as well as the first under second-year head coach John Groce.

Groce was hired prior to last season, after the firing of longtime Illini coach, Bruce Weber.  The head coach of the Ohio Bobcats from 2008 to 2012, Groce finished with a 23-13 record (8-10 in the Big Ten) in his first season at Illinois.  The season was strong enough to earn the Illini a 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they eventually lost to Miami in the Round of 32.

Groce constantly preaches “Toughness and Togetherness,” a motto that his players and staff have shortened to “T-n-T.”

Although Illinois began the season with questions regarding the lack of team experience, Rice has led the team in scoring and shown leadership during his first season with the Illini.  A Champaign native, he has been excellent in his first eligible season since transferring from Drake.  Averaging 19 ppg, 5.7 rpg, and 1.9 apg, Rice is the Big Ten’s leading scorer, with his 29 point outburst against Indiana propelling him past Penn State’s D.J. Newbill on the scoring list.

Rice has been named Big Ten Player of the Week twice this season, with the game against Indiana marking his sixth 20+ point outing of the young season.  His ability to finish at the rim has been paramount to his success this year, and for Penn State to pull out the win, they must be able to contain him.

Joining Rice in the backcourt are PG Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand.  Abrams, a 6-2 junior from Chicago, has averaged 13 ppg and 3.9 rpg this season.  His 3.2 assists per game lead the team.

Bertrand, a 6-6 redshirt senior from Sterling, IL, was the sixth man for the Fighting Illini last season and has slotted into the starting lineup nicely.  Averaging 11 ppg and 5.4 rpg, Bertrand has done a bit of everything this season.

The Illinois starting frontcourt has been average offensively, but their presence has certainly been felt on defense.  Nnanna Egwu, a 6-11 center from Chicago, is currently ranked 3rd in the Big Ten in blocks, averaging 2.29 per game.  In addition, the junior big man has scored 8 ppg and grabbed 5.1 rpg.

Egwu’s partner in the frontcourt is Jon Ekey, a 6-7 graduate student who transferred to Illinois after completing his undergraduate degree at Illinois State University.  Ekey averages 8.2 ppg and leads the Fighting Illini in rebounding, grabbing 5.8 per game.  The forward has also shown an ability to stretch the floor a bit, shooting 27-73 (37%) from three-point range.  His 73 3-pointers attempted lead the Fighting Illini.

With a bench consisting of five freshmen and a lone sophomore, coach Groce has tried to maximize the starting-five’s minutes this season.  As a result, the bench has barely contributed to the scoring output, the leading scorer being freshman guard Kendrick Nunn who averages 3.2 ppg.         

The matchup against Illinois seems like it could go either way for the Nittany Lions.  Penn State has only played three true road games this season, going 2-1.  While the wins came against mid-major programs in Penn and Duquesne, they were at the Palestra and CONSOL Energy Center; two arenas with a ton of atmosphere. 

The lone road loss of the season came against the Pittsburgh Panthers in a hostile Petersen Events Center on December 3rd. Although it was a tough loss in a winnable game, the wins over Penn and Duquesne, as well as over St. Johns at the Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn, proved that Pat Chambers and his squad can win away from State College.

Illinois has struggled scoring points at times this season, averaging only 72.1 ppg; 7.9 less than Penn State’s mark of 79.9 ppg.  While the Fighting Illini have combated their offensive issues with strong team defense, they will certainly have their hands full when trying to contain the backcourt duo of Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill.  The pair currently lead the nation in scoring by a backcourt, averaging 36.2 ppg.

Both teams have been average when rebounding the ball this season, with Penn state slightly edging Illinois 36.6 to 36.1 in rebounds per game.  While the two marks are essentially the same, winning the rebounding battle is a key to success for the Nittany Lions as it will allow them more chances to capitalize on offense.

While the outcome was not favorable, Penn State had a halftime lead against an extremely talented Michigan State team on New Year’s Eve.  The team did not play a strong second half, but their performance in the first half showed the potential of this Nittany Lions squad.  Penn State will certainly be hungry for their first Big Ten win on Saturday, and with a strong offensive showing, the Nittany Lions could steal one on the road.

Tipoff is scheduled for 2:15 pm E.T. at the State Farm Center in Champaign, IL.

Uriah Tagle is a junior majoring in communication arts and sciences, and economics. To contact him, email uriahtagle@gmail.com.

Photo Courtesy: (AP Photo/Centre Daily Times, Nabil K. Mark)