PREVIEW: Illinois at Penn State

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' trip to Penn State on Saturday.

Illinois (13-8, 3-5) at

Penn State (11-10, 3-5)

Date & Time: Jan. 28, 3:30 p.m. CT

Location: Bryce Jordan Center (University Park, Pa.)

TV: BTN

Quick Hits

  • Illinois is looking for their first road win after going 0-4 on the road up to this point.
  • The Illini have lost their last eight true road games.
  • John Groce is 11-29 on the road in the Big Ten during his tenure.
  • Illinois will try to win back-to-back Big Ten games for the first time since 2015.
  • The Illini lost 86-79 at Penn State last season in double overtime.
  • Illinois is 28-14 all-time against Penn State, and 11-8 on the road in the series.
  • Penn State has won five of the the last seven meetings in University Park.
  • The Nittany Lions are on a three-game losing streak with losses to Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana.
  • Penn State is 31st in the country in defensive efficiency, which is fifth in the Big Ten.

Projected Starters

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Finally, Lucas made the first start of his career on Wednesday against Iowa. He finished with six points, six assists and two steals, while sparking a 10-0 run to start the game. Illinois was +21 with Lucas in the game during his 27 minutes. Roll with him.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands hit a pair of threes to total six points in 20 minutes against Iowa. He also posted four assists and two steals. Coleman-Lands hit only one three in two road games last week. They'll need more than that on Saturday.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Groce said Hill played one of the best games of his career on Wednesday with 11 points, six rebounds, three assists, two steals and a nice defensive job on Peter Jok. He's had better games, but he is playing good basketball of late. He'll need to bring more of the same against a good defensive squad.

Leron Black (R-SO): Black was active in his 18 minutes of action against Iowa with 10 points and seven rebounds. He has made six of his last eight shots, which has raised his Big Ten shooting percentage from below 37 to 42.6.

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan had 12 points and seven rebounds in a team-high 29 minutes on Wednesday. He has scored in double figures in six of Illinois' eight Big Ten games thus far. Morgan is fifth in the league shooting 59.4 percent from the field.

Bench

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke scored 17 points and hit three treys off the bench against Iowa. He has hit nine of his last 13 threes, and he's shooting 57.1 percent from deep in Big Ten play. The Illini must continue to get him open looks.

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams had seven points and hit one of his five three-point attempts on Wednesday. He is now 2-of-26 from three in Big Ten play, while shooting 23.6 percent from the field overall.

Kipper Nichols (R-FR): Nichols had four points and two rebounds in 16 minutes against Iowa. He has scored nine points in the four games since his 13-point outing against Michigan. He should focus primarily on defending and rebounding, though.

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate posted three points and three assists on Wednesday, although Illinois was -11 in his 15 minutes of action. He's played 35 minutes combined in the last two games, while registering just four in the three previous contests.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne has played double-digit minutes in three straight games, and he had one rebound and a block in 10 minutes against Iowa. He is averaging 3.8 points and 2.5 rebounds per game in Big Ten play, which is a far cry from where he was expected to be.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan did not see action on Wednesday. He played 10 minutes in the last road game and had four rebounds, but he missed all three of his shot attempts.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams didn't play against Iowa, which was the fourth time in five games that he hasn't seen the floor. He played three minutes in the first half against Michigan, but never left the bench after that.

Penn State Starters

Tony Carr (FR): Carr has been up and down in the Big Ten, but that's to be expected of a freshman. He is certainly talented. He was a top-50 get for Penn State, and he's averaging 11.4 points, five rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. He had 24 points against Indiana in his last home game.

Shep Garner (SR): Garner leads the Nittany Lions with 12.1 points per game, but he's scored in double figures just twice in Big Ten play. The Illini know he what he is capable of, though. He had 22 points and hit four threes in the win last season.

Josh Reaves (SO): Reaves' stats don't jump off the screen with 8.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. But he is a critical part of Penn State's growing improvement. Reaves is a really good perimeter defender. He is 10th in the country in steal percentage with 2.4 takeaways per game.

Lamar Stevens (FR): Stevens has been a big addition to the Lions frontcourt with 11.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. And he fits right into the mold as a hard-nosed defender and rebounder, who can also take on some contact and finish around the hoop.

Julian Moore (R-JR): Moore is averaging 2.7 points and 3.1 rebounds in 14.9 minutes per game. He doesn't score often, but he is 11-of-18 from the field in Big Ten play.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Execute against good defense. Penn State is 31st in the country in defensive efficiency. The Illini have played four games against teams in the top 35 of that category, and the results have not been great. They have averaged just 58.3 points per game, while turning it over 16 times per contest. Penn State is going to be disruptive with their ball pressure and the amount of energy they exert at that end of the floor. They also protect the rim. The Lions are 51st nationally in two-point field goal percentage, while freshman center Mike Watkins is 13th in the country in block percentage. All of this being said, Illinois didn't execute well against Michigan the last time they were on the road. And Michigan has been one of the worst major-college defensive teams out there. The Illini should not expect wide open looks like they got against Iowa. But they still need contributions from multiple guys, while taking care of the ball and getting good looks.

2. Te'Jon's time. The offense runs through Lucas, and with him getting his second start in a row, it's time to see if he can string back-to-back games together. There's no question that Illinois is a better team when he's on the court. His ability to make plays off the dribble while seeing the floor opens up opportunities for those around him. Can he do it against a sound defense that likes to take it away and get out in transition? The Illini have to hope so, and they need him to continue to be solid at the defensive end. Groce has talked a lot about the strides he's made in that area. He can't do what he did at Purdue, which was rack up three fouls in five minutes in the first half. Carr will be a challenge for him on Saturday.

3. You've got to defend. Penn State can't be the only team that's going to bring it at the defensive end. The Nittany Lions don't have what you'd call an explosive offense. They only scored 52 points in their last win against Minnesota at home. But the Gophers are sixth in the country in defensive efficiency. So that makes a little more sense. You know what else makes sense? The Illini will have to be good at that end of the floor to win this game. Penn State is capable of hitting the three with Carr and Garner. And Payton Banks comes off the bench shooting 38.9 percent from deep. But they also want to drive the ball and get it near the basket. Illinois has to be disciplined to defend without fouling. And they have to get stops. Their defense faltered in the second half against Iowa, and it hasn't been near good enough on the road.

Prediction

Illinois needs this game to bring some momentum back home with them for a big stretch next week. This is a game that will test Illinois' consistency, which is something they haven't had in Big Ten play from one game to the next. They'll also be tested in terms of toughness and ability to produce on the road. Penn State will be hungry for a win as well, and they will play with plenty of confidence at home. But bottom line: This is a winnable game for Illinois and they need to go get it.

Illinois 70, Penn State 66


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