The Illini mens basketball team is a big favorite tonight against the Penn State Nittany Lions. In fact, even when the Illini were struggling in January most fans already had tonight's game penciled in the win column.
The Nittany Lions are 0-13 in conference play. They haven't even won a game of any kind in calendar year 2013. They have been blown out during the course of league play, but have also lost close games to Nebraska, Purdue, Iowa and last Sunday to Michigan. They have 17 straight road losses and have lost 15 straight Big Ten road games.
But despite having a tough year this year and playing most of the season without their best player Tim Frazier, Penn State has continued to play hard. Opposing coaches say that a lot when playing an opponent they should beat, but in this case it is true. Any casual observer of Big Ten basketball has noticed that there is no quit in Patrick Chamber's team.
Plus the returning players for both teams realize that the Nittany Lions have held their own against the Illini the last decade. From the stunning PSU win in Champaign to end a long Illini home court winning streak a few years ago to the extremely ugly 38-33 Nittany Lion win in Champaign in 2009, Penn State has managed to befuddle the Illini. Overall, in the last 10 games between the two teams, Penn State has won 6 of those games. Numerous times the matchups between Illinois and Penn State have come down to one shot. Last year Tim Frazier hit a jumper in the closing seconds in Happy Valley to start an Illini downward spiral that eventually cost Bruce Weber his job.
Yes the Illini are playing well. And yes when they play well they can beat anyone (even Indiana). They are playing with a lot of confidence on both ends of the floor.
It will be really important to take of business tonight against Penn State. The NCAA berth for John Groce's team seemed like a unreachable goal only 2 weeks ago. Now Illini fans are talking about things like seeding in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.
But first, Illinois must solve the recent and puzzling riddle known as Penn State and not get bit in the process.