Game Preview: Penn State vs. Illinois

Story posted March 5, 2016 in Sports, CommRadio by Madeleine Balestrier

Coming off of a disappointing loss to the Northwestern Wildcats, the Penn State Nittany Lions(15-15, 6-11 Big Ten) host the Illinois Fighting Illini (13-17, 5-12 Big Ten) this Sunday to finish out the 2015-2016 regular season.

With both teams looking to redeem themselves from their last match ups, Penn State and Illinois are also both battling for Big Ten Tournament seeding. Both teams fall in the latter half of rankings, as Penn State’s fate within their conference tournament lies in the outcome of their performance against the contestable Illinois Fighting Illini.

Historically, the Fighting Illini have had the upper hand over the Nittany Lions, as they hold the series advantage at 28-13, while also staking their claim at the Bryce Jordan Center with a winning record of 11-7. Although the Nittany Lions have a disadvantageous history against the Fighting Illini, the Blue and White faithful should expect an exciting showing because 11 of the last 14 matchups have been decided by five or fewer points. In the last matchup, the Nittany Lions fell to the Fighting Illini 60-58 on the road last January.

The keys to Illinois’ success are in their offensive strategy and Malcolm Hill’s production. With their 81-55 loss to the Maryland Terrapins Thursday night, Hill was held to only 10 points. Hill is Illinois’ leading scorer and is one of the only conference players to lead his team in points, rebounds and assists this season. Defensively, Penn State is stronger with a lower opponent three-point field goal percentage (38.1), opponent rebounds per game (35.7), and blocks per game (4.3). Offensively, Illinois puts up better numbers than Penn State with 72.1 points per game, 8.2 three-pointers per game, and a 74.1 free-throw percentage. Along with the need for consistency from Hill, Illinois needs to find continuity and fluidness between their offensive and defensive play.

The Fighting Illini recently have found a bright spot in their center, Maverick Morgan. Morgan put on a show with a career high of 21 points and 10 rebounds in their loss against the Terrapins. This is an astounding feat especially because he averages 7.8 points per game. If the Illini can incorporate him into their offensive strategy, while also maintaining a strong defensive stance, the Nittany Lions could find trouble in both Morgan and Hill.

Penn State has seen consistent offensive production from Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner. Taylor, Penn State’s leader and most formidable threat, averages 16.2 points per game and 6.4 rebounds per game, while simultaneously cementing his place within the conference as one of the top 10 scorers and rebounders. Although Taylor’s play screams leadership and consistency, Garner provides an effective counterpart to Taylor with his big plays and hot streaks. After a brief shooting slump, the guard has rebounded with three straight 20 or more point games. While Penn State’s offensive strategy has proven more effective throughout the season, their defense stands to be a key factor in their upcoming game. In the last 10 of their 15 games, Penn State has found victory when holding their opponents below 40 percent shooting. They are even  7-0 when the team on the other side of the ball is held to less than 60 points. If Penn State can find chemistry and transition between their offensive and defensive play, then the Blue and White may find victory after a two-game losing streak.

Penn State finished out February with a 4-3 winning record for the first time since the 1997-1998 season. Although they lost their first game of March and second to last game of the season, the Nittany Lions still have an opportunity to continue their season of improvement and gradual success under head coach, Pat Chambers.

With a seemingly intense and close game on Sunday, the Penn State Nittany Lions are at home to face-off against the Illinois Fighting Illini at noon in the Bryce Jordan Center.

Madeleine Balestrier is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact her, email mrb5883@psu.edu