CHAMPAIGN — If the object of Thursday’s exercise was to attain .500 status (9-9) in the Big Ten, John Groce’s Illini were successful.
But for the 7,667 who braved the snowstorm — half of the purchased seats were empty — they held their collective breath as a 14.5-point favorite reverted to January form and still prevailed, 64-59, against Penn State’s cellar dwellers.
Fifty-two fouls, while 10 short of the Assembly Hall record, made it almost unwatchable ... the Illini garnering win No. 20 by cashing 23 of 36 one-pointers, shooting a mediocre 39.5 percent from the field and being outrebounded 34-25.
It was as though the basket was a moving target and rebounds too slippery to hang onto. No Illini had an offensive board until Sam McLaurin speared one with 14 minutes left to set up a trey for Brandon Paul.
Paul (16) and runningmate D.J. Richardson (18) finished strong, and the Illini never gave up the lead although Penn State cut a 29-20 halftime deficit to 29-27. Most distressing was the UI’s inability to deal with 6-foot-9 Serbian Sasa Borovnjak who, like Wisconsin sub Frank Kaminsky, hurt the Illini inside. Borovnjak had 17 points after entering with a 6.5-point average.
“It was a grind,” Groce said, “and very hard to get in a flow. It wasn’t sexy. It is what it is.”
This was Penn State’s 19th straight setback against Big Ten opponents. Pat Chambers’ club is losing traction back on campus, where the buzz mostly emanates from the fierce divide over the treatment of the late Joe Paterno and the NCAA’s ultra-strong sanctions related to the school’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky case.
In that explosive atmosphere, the football program survived with honor for at least one season. The 8-4 record speaks for itself. Football is still the talk of the town while basketball drifts into a nonconsequential slide.
The Nittany Lions’ 12-year conference record is 49-151. That’s 200 basketball games — no small sample — with a winning percentage of 24.5. That includes nine straight Big Ten losses at the dreary Bryce Jordan Center, where upper portions are covered to disguise empty seats.
The impact is what you might expect. Folks are grumbling or, worse yet, they have ceased to care. The announced turnout for a recent Tuesday night game against Purdue was 6,270. By contrast, the Top 10 women’s team (22-3, 12-1) drew 4,539 for Wednesday’s beatdown of Matt Bollant’s Illini.
Without improvement, Chambers faces second-class citizenship next season, even as he welcomes back Tim Frazier for what should be an improved Nittany Lion quintet. Check it out:
— Bill O’Brien’s football team closed the season Nov. 24 with a 24-21 victory against Big Ten champion Wisconsin with 93,505 as listed attendance. For those bemoaning Penn State’s bad fortune, Illinoisans ask a legitimate question as to who faces the most trying football future: Penn State’s sanctioned operation or an Illinois program that sees an assistant coach seeking a safer landing place almost every week?
— Penn State’s crack wrestling team, which shut out a ranked Illini team 37-0 on Feb. 3 at Huff Hall, is drawing home crowds approaching 7,000.
— Terrence Pegula, whose net worth last September was estimated at $3 billion (natural gas), has personally funded an $88 million, 6,000-seat hockey arena, and he also will endow Penn State hockey scholarships. Penn State’s inclusion allows the Big Ten to form a six-team conference next season. They expect to fill those 6,000 seats.
— Oh, in case you’re wondering, Russ Rose’s volleyball team, which won four straight NCAA titles ending in 2010, averaged 3,274 home fans this season and reached the Final Four.
It’s clear, as the losses pile up, that men’s basketball is trailing on the enthusiasm meter in Happy Valley. As for Illinois, don’t judge fan interest on Thursday’s turnout. The pileup of stalled traffic trying to get home through the snow at 5 p.m. discouraged many fans from leaving their TV sets after they reached them.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.