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Illinois Basketball: 4 Thoughts Before Penn State

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Coming off their biggest win of the year in Madison Square Garden back in December, Illinois laid an egg at home to Penn State. That 15-point loss made them 0-2 in the early conference double. They’ve been climbing out of that hole ever since and have a chance to get some revenge on Tuesday.

1. Happy Valley Vengeance

That loss in December wasn’t just one loss. It featured a fiery and controversial post-game press conference from Brad Underwood highlighted by an, ahem, oral simulation of flatulence from the Illini’s head coach, Underwood bemoaned the team’s lack of player leadership and execution.

Flash forwards a couple months, and the Illini are looking more like the team that beat UCLA, battled Virginia to the end, and toppled Texas in the Big Apple. There are a lot of proud competitors on this team, and I am interested to see how personal they take this game. Penn State is still a dangerous animal, but there’s a reason that December loss was so shocking at the time.

2. Run it Back, Remixed

Along with other substandard outings against Missouri and Northwestern, the previous matchup between these two teams helped inspire another Underwood midseason reinvention. The Illini dropped their switch-everything lineup that allowed Penn State’s outstanding point guard Javon Pickett to hunt out certain matchups. Back then it was the young bucks, Jayden Epps, Sencire Harris and Skyy Clark. Pickett had 20 points, and more importantly, completely dominated the tempo and flow of the game. Penn State shot 12-24 from deep, and while some were tough shots, Pickett persistently posted the Illini’s smaller guards, forcing rotations and open shots.

Now the Illini will fight through almost every screen, allowing the much more physically imposing Terrence Shannon Jr. to stick on Pickett and hopefully not allow as many open looks for Penn State’s shooters. Those 12 makes from three are still the most Illinois has given up all year, and since then the Illini have clearly focused on clamping down on perimeter shots. Pickett is still dangerous, and guys like Andrew Funk (six threes in December) and Myles Dread (five threes in December) didn’t just forget how to shoot. Illinois will have to be dialed in defensively and not let them get comfortable early.

3. Dain Causing Pain

Another major difference from that first loss is Dain Dainja establishing himself as a major piece of the starting lineup. The 6’10” 270-pound center wasn’t a perfect fit for the switch everything defense. Illinois seemed to try and keep him from switching as much as possible, but the different set of rules for the big man led to blown switches and general confusion defensively. He played just 12 minutes in December, even with just one foul. Penn State runs out lineups with shooters everywhere, although the price they pay for that is they do not have a very strong interior defensively.

Dainja has proved himself a very steady option in the post, especially against smaller teams. He will never be option one offensively with the wealth of offensive talent Illinois has starting. Despite his spot in the pecking order, Illinois would be wise to use him early and often. There’s no Nittany Lion that can last 12 rounds on the block with the big man.

4. Self Starting

While they were rolling in December, the Nittany Lions are in a four-game skid. While the team fights desperately for their tournament lives, their football school fans are not. Penn State is one of the only Big Ten venues that very often falls short of the conference’s lofty attendance numbers. In their latest home loss to Wisconsin only 7,213 fans were in the stands, under 50% of the Bryce Jordan Center’s capacity. Less fans seems good on its face, but it makes for a very tricky vibe.

Penn State is clawing for any kind of life. At 14-11 it’s now or never for the Pickett and the other five Nittany Lion seniors. Without a large crowd there will be an energy vacuum in the building. Illinois needs to start its own fire, and keep it fueled all game. A team that can shoot like Penn State can get back in the game in a hurry, and getting bored in an energy-less building is the quickest way for that to happen.

With Purdue’s surprise loss to Northwestern, the regular season title door is just barely still open, and this is a must-win in order to advance towards that goal.

Brian is a former sports writer for the Daily Illini who has been covering Illinois Basketball for over 5 years. Brian is now the lead basketball reporter for Armchair Illini, the go-to source for Illinois athletics news. He has had work published on Bleacher Report, Verbal Commits, USA Today and more.

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