Can Illini Fire Up For Happy Valley Showdown?

The Fighting Illini basketball team had 8 days off and now finds itself alone atop the Big 10 conference standings. But can they stay there? The league is strong top to bottom, and anyone can beat most anyone on a given night. The Illini may find out how true that is if they aren't focused and ready for their best effort at Penn State Thursday night.

Illinois made national news a week ago Tuesday by upsetting then #5 Ohio State in the Assembly. And junior guard Brandon Paul scored 43 points to almost singlehandedly make the upset possible. As a result of their 4-1 start in the conference and upsets of other leaders, the Illini are temporarily alone at the top.

But questions abound. How will Paul play against Penn State? Will his new confidence level propel him to find consistency with his game? Or will he crash and burn like so many have done after a peak performance. Will he limit his shots to what fits the offense, or will he start jacking up forced threes, hoping his good fortune will continue?

Will the Illini be able to sustain their league lead against a difficult conference schedule that promises many more upsets? How will they perform after an 8 day layoff? Will they come out flat, or will they be refreshed and ready to give 100% effort. And how will they do against an aggressive Penn State team in its poorly attended home building?

Illinois coach Bruce Weber has worked hard to convince Paul of his abilities and help him blend his various skills into a finished product. Like the rest of us, Weber wonders how Paul will respond after all the notoriety of the Ohio State game.

"I hope it gave Brandon a nice jolt. When is he going to turn the corner on being the great player everyone feels he can be? The other night, he showed that he can be special. If he could take a big step, it would be very positive for our team, there's no question about that.

"I think the thing I would like from him is to have a little bit of a sense of urgency at the beginning of games. Obviously, he's not going to be shooting eight for 10, but if he can shoot 40% on a daily basis, it helps us.

"I asked him why he has a sense of urgency at the end of games that he doesn't have at the beginning. We need him to get to the basket, get to the free throw line. It's a thing we need as a team. The sense of urgency and consistency are things we'd like to have."

Paul claims the new fame will not go to his head. But his life has changed this past week.

"Other than the 2000+ more followers on Twitter, not much has changed. It's been the same around town. Someone notices you and comes up to congratulate you. It's been good.

"I think we were down-to-earth the day after or the day after that. People kept telling us to keep a level head, but I forgot about the game after a day or so. I'm looking to do what I need to do to help us get Penn State. That's my focus.

"I'm just coming in with the mindset to win this game. I'm not really thinking too much about my individual performances. I just want to do something to help the team win."

Winning in the Big 10 is a challenge game in and game out. Upsets are common this season; 40% of wins have come on the road. Get complacent for even a moment, and a bottom feeder will rise up and push you into the mud. Weber understates the problem all conference teams face.

"There are a lot of good teams in the league, and you have to come ready to play."

Joe Bertrand marvels at the topsy-turvy nature of the league.

"It's so competitive out there, with the top teams getting knocked off. You don't know what's going to happen next."

The task at present is preparing for the Nittany Lions. PSU is a mere 9-10 on the season, 1-5 in the Big 10. If the Illini take them lightly, they will lose. New coach Patrick Chambers brings an intensity to his young team that gives them upset potential at any time, especially at home.

"Penn State has gotten our attention with their win (over Purdue by 20 points) and big games they have given Indiana and Minnesota. You know you're going to have to come and play to be successful.

"I think it's a maturity game. You've got to get up for the game. They have a new coach, they don't have a lot of guys back. They've got guys who buy in and play hard. They're very aggressive, they live for threes and going to the basket.

"You have to have that maturity to realize what you're up against. Your guys have to be ready to play. That's the message we're going to do, and hopefully they're buying in."

Tim Frazier (6'-1", 170) is by far Penn State's leading scorer with an 18.2 per game average. The junior is one of only two players to have started all 19 games. He shoots only 40% from the field but averages over 5 rebounds a game, leads the team in steals and is by far the leading assist man with nearly five a game. His quickness presents a tough matchup for the Illini.

Redshirt sophomore Jermaine Marshall (6'-4", 200) is the only other Nittany Lion in double figures at 10.1 ppg. He's hitting 33% from the arc. Redshirt junior Billy Oliver (6'-8", 230) is the only other player to have started every game and scores at a 7.3 rate. He is the team's best three-point marksman.

Senior Cammeron Woodyard (6'-5", 210) is third in scoring with 8.3 points a game, and he averages more than four boards each outing. He is also good from the arc. Sophomore Matt Glover (6'-4", 210) doesn't score much, but he's started 15 games and pulls down 4.4 rebounds per game.

Other players who may see action include freshman Trey Lewis (6'-1", 180), sophomore Sasa Borovnjak (6'-9", 240), frosh Ross Travis (6'-6", 220), redshirt freshman Jon Graham (6'-8", 240) and junior Nick Colella (6'-3", 195). 6'-11" freshman Patrick Ackerman may be called on to help defensively.

Bertrand respects PSU's talent, especially Frazier.

"They are a real athletic team, and fast. Frasier's real quick. You've got to sit on him because he runs the team. We're working in practice on closing the gaps and keeping them in front of us."

Weber gave his players a couple days off last weekend. Some feel the 8 days between games will make the team rusty and sluggish. Others believe the euphoria from the OSU win has had time to wear off, allowing the Illini to refocus. Weber believes the layoff helped.

"I think it was a good break. We weren't back in school yet, so the kids had a couple days to get refreshed. For the freshman, I think it was needed to be home and be regular kids. We came back in Sunday night and worked pretty hard. We had two sessions Monday, and now were getting ready for Penn State.

"Being up at top is gratifying, but there's a long ways to go. As far as coming back down, the more days allowed us to settle down a little bit. And then just watching the other games, I reminded them with texts what was going on. I think it's a positive thing if you use it: you can beat anybody on a given day if you come ready to play."

Sam Maniscalco sees the break being essential for the team's psyche.

"I think it's good we had the break right now. As much as you want to try to escape it, with Brandon's performance it's pretty hard to escape with everybody talking about it. I think it will show our maturity if we can put that behind us."

Bertrand sees the OSU game as giving the team what it needed most, confidence. True confidence can sustain the team the rest of the year.

"The team is real confident. We're playing with a lot more confidence that we have. It's going to be a big boost for us."

It can be difficult to take Penn State seriously, especially since they have a new coach and lost a number of their top players to graduation. But as the Illini learned last year in Happy Valley, a dead venue can have an adverse effect on visitors. There is a strong likelihood of poor attendance since the game doesn't begin until 9:00 pm Eastern time. So an enthusiasm drain can be pronounced.

"It's different because it's not always packed," Paul explains. "We've got to come out hard if we want to win. They've got a good coach, and they have passion in their program. They are a good team and we respect them, but we feel like we're the better team."

On a positive note, Maniscalco will play after missing three straight games. Weber hopes to work him back into the lineup slowly.

"I don't think we can play him 30 minutes, but we can script him for 10 to 15 minutes. There is a lot of things we can use him for. We can give him a feel, and then give him more minutes against Wisconsin."

The senior guard can't wait to restart his senior season.

"I'm excited. I'm enthused to get going, to get back out with the guys and compete with them. It's a good feeling. I will do whatever it takes to help this team win. Having not done anything for the last 2 1/2 weeks or so and being in the boot, 10 to 15 looks like a good goal for now. Work back into things.

"I started to do some court work on Sunday, just a little bit here and there. I scrimmaged a little bit on Monday, and it feels real good right now. I've been going through various treatments and pool work to get my conditioning back. The biggest thing now is getting back into the swing of things as far as conditioning goes, getting up and down the court."

While he wished to be playing with them, Maniscalco was proud of his teammates for their play without him.

"They've been playing really well. I think the biggest thing is they are playing with energy, competing and playing hard. As long as you play hard and play defense, I think you give yourselves a chance to win. We were able to squeeze out some close ones."

Perhaps with Maniscalco's leadership to guide them, the Illini can put the past behind them and give good effort Thursday night.

"As everyone knows, road wins do not come easily in the Big Ten. We are focused on what we've got to do to prepare for Penn State. Hopefully we go there tomorrow and play with the same energy and emotion we had the last few games, and come out with the 'W.'"


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