Penn State at UI, 7:15 p.m. today
Illinois (19-8, 6-7 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Tracy Abrams So. 6-1 10.9
G D.J. Richardson Sr. 6-3 12.7
G Brandon Paul Sr. 6-4 16.4
F Sam McLaurin Sr. 6-8 4.3
C Nnanna Egwu So. 6-11 6.4
FYI: Richardson leads the team in scoring in Big Ten games, averaging 14.7 points per game, including 17.3 points the last eight games.
OFF THE BENCH
G Joseph Bertrand Jr. 6-6 8.3
F Tyler Griffey Sr. 6-9 7.6
F Myke Henry So. 6-6 3.2
Penn State (8-17, 0-13 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G D.J. Newbill So. 6-4 16.0
G Jermaine Marshall Jr. 6-4 14.8
G Nick Colella Sr. 6-3 3.8
F Ross Travis So. 6-6 6.6
F Sasa Borovnjak Sr. 6-9 6.5
FYI: The last time out against then-No. 4 Michigan, Marshall had a career-high 29 points and 10 rebounds for his first ever double-double.
OFF THE BENCH
F Brandon Taylor Fr. 6-7 6.0
F Jon Graham So. 6-8 2.2
F Donovon Jack Fr. 6-9 1.7
Site: The Assembly Hall (16,618) Champaign
TV: BTN — Dave Revsine (play-by-play) and former Ohio State All-American Jim Jackson (analyst) have the call.
Radio: Brian Barnhart (play-by-play) and former Illini Jerry Hester (expert analysis) have the call on the Illini Sports Network on WDWS 1400-AM, WDAN 1490-AM, WHMS 97.5-FM, WDNL 102.1-FM and WPXN 104.9-FM.
Series: Illinois leads 24-13. Last meeting — Penn State 54, Illinois 52, Jan. 19, 2012.
FYI: With one more win, the Illini, who won 17 games last season, would reach 20 wins for the fourth time in the last five years.
Marcus Jackson’s storylines
When Illinois was struggling, losing six of seven games, including four straight at home, defense was the area that John Groce pointed to as the weak link. Opponents shot 48.5 percent against the Illini during that stretch. Since then, Groce’s club has started to figure out that end of the floor, limiting opponents to 37.9 percent shooting in four consecutive wins. The key for Illinois is maintaining that focus during the closing stretch of the season, starting tonight against the Nittany Lions, who are shooting 36.8 percent in conference play. “Sometimes when things are going favorably for you, you can forget the dance partner that brought you to the dance — and that’s clearly our defense,” Groce said. “When we defend, we’re a much better team.”
The tendency can be to overlook a team that’s lost 13 straight in conference play and look ahead to Sunday’s rematch against No. 7 Michigan, which beat Illinois soundly a month ago. But just looking at how close Penn State played at Michigan on Sunday shows the llini can ill-afford to look past Pat Chambers’ squad. Groce said Illinois still has areas it needs to improve upon and focusing on those things is most important, whether the next opponent is Penn State or Indiana. “They’ve played really well of late,” Tyler Griffey said. “They’re a good team, they play hard, they play tough. We’re going to have to come out ready to play; can’t sleepwalk.”
A lot of the attention on Griffey during the early part of the Big ten season was that he wasn’t making shots. He was 0 for 22 from three-point range before getting a couple to go down against Indiana. He’s back in his offensive groove, but the strides he’s made defensively have gone unnoticed. His rebounding numbers are up and he’s able to play consistent minutes off the bench because he’s not a liability defensively. “He’s darn-near tripled what he was. The way he’s locked in and communicating, he’s playing much better,” Groce said. “I have to bring something to the table. I’m not the quickest, I’m not the fastest and I try to communicate with the guys through the plays,” Griffey said. “I’ve paid attention in scouting and I really know the plays so I can communicate and help direct where guys need to go.”
Prediction: Illinois 71, Penn State 61
It’s easy to look at this game from an Illinois perspective and assume the Illini will win. The Nittany Lions are winless in Big Ten play and all-conference guard Tim Frazier was lost for the season after four games with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. A credit to Penn State’s players is they’re still competing. “Obviously they’ve been through a lot of adversity and I respect the energy and passion that Coach (Pat) Chambers has. It’s very evident his team takes on the personality. They compete, they play very hard,” Groce said. We’ve seen with this Illinois team that it’s capable of beating anyone, but it’s also not immune to the head-scratching defeat. If they can maintain the focus they’ve demonstrated in recent weeks, the Illini will get back to .500 in conference play and put themselves in line to move up NCAA tournament seed lines. (N-G record: 15-12).