PREVIEW: Illinois vs. Penn State

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' rematch with Penn State on Saturday.

Illinois (14-11, 4-8) vs.

Penn State (13-12, 5-7)

Date & Time: Feb. 11, 1 p.m. CT

Location: State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)


Quick Hits

  • Illinois is coming off their first road victory since Feb. 3, 2016.
  • The Illini have played 31 Big Ten regular season games since they last won two straight.
  • Illinois' defense has held opponents to 37.4 percent shooting over the last three games.
  • The Illini are 21-21 in Big Ten home games during John Groce's tenure.
  • Illinois is 28-15 all-time against Penn State, but they've lost the last two meetings.
  • Penn State won 71-67 at University Park on Jan. 28.
  • The Nittany Lions are coming off a win against No. 21 Maryland on Tuesday.

Probable Starters

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas had 11 points and six assists in a career-high 33 minutes on Tuesday at Northwestern. The ball has life when it is in his hands. And Groce continues to praise his defense -- saying he has the highest defense grade-out of a perimeter freshman during his head coaching career.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands only made two shots, but he had a well-rounded performance with five points, five assists and five rebounds on Tuesday. Groce told him it was maybe his most complete performance during his collegiate career. He has only made three of his last 19 three-point attempts, though.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill scored all 14 of his points in the second half against the Wildcats. He also finished with nine rebounds, three assists and three steals. Hill had 19 points, seven assists and six rebounds in the first meeting against Penn State.

Leron Black (SO): Black had two points and one rebound in 15 minutes at Northwestern. He is top-30 in the country in defensive rebounding percentage. But Black has averaged less than five points per game through the last four contests. He was a double-figure scorer in six of his first seven games this season.

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan finished with 11 points, four rebounds and two blocks on Tuesday. He played a career-high 36 minutes. Morgan has scored in double figures in 10 of his last 11 games.


Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke was one of the key performers down the stretch at Northwestern by hitting big shots. He finished with 11 points, including three triples, along with three steals in 22 minutes. That was most minutes he's played in the Big Ten season.

Kipper Nichols (R-FR): Nichols continues to bring a spark off the bench with his production. He was 9-of-12 from the field last week for 25 points combined, and he hit all four of his three-point attempts. Nichols has played 20-plus minutes in each of the last three games.

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams had five points and two assists in 16 minutes at Northwestern. He played just three minutes in the previous game against Minnesota. Abrams is averaging four points per game in Big Ten play.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan started on Tuesday for the first time since the season-opener, but he played just four minutes and didn't appear the rest of the game. He grabbed a rebound and missed a three.

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate did not see action against Northwestern. That broke a streak of five straight games with double-digit minutes. He played 15 minutes with no points and three assists against Penn State in the first meeting.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne did not play on Tuesday. He sat at home against Wisconsin last week as well. Thorne has played in eight of the 12 Big Ten games, and he's averaging 11.6 minutes per contest in conference play.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams sat the bench for the fifth straight game. Through the last nine games, the only action he has seen was three minutes at Michigan.

Penn State Starters

Tony Carr (FR): Carr is averaging 12.3 points and four assists per game this season. He finished with 12 points against the Illini last month. Carr has scored in double figures in six of the last seven games.

Shep Garner (JR): Garner came out red-hot against the Illini last time, as he finished with a team-high 18 points with four threes. He's hit at least four treys in three of the last four games, including six against Rutgers.

Josh Reaves (SO): Reaves had eight points, three blocks, three rebounds and three assists against Illinois in the first meeting. He can do a variety of things, and his defense is considered his best trait.

Lamar Stevens (FR): Stevens exploded for 25 points on Tuesday in the upset win over Maryland. He had 26 against Indiana the previous week. Stevens has also pulled in at least seven rebounds in the last three games. Things are clicking for the freshman.

Mike Watkins (R-FR): Watkins has been very productive for the Lions, especially recently. He is averaging 10.7 points and 9.2 rebounds over the last four games. He had 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocks on Tuesday. He is 13th in the country in shot-blocking percentage.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Consistent defense. Shot-making can vary, but being consistently sound and tough defensively allows you to be more of a consistent basketball team. Obviously, you have to score to win. But defense can keep you in games. That's what we've seen with Illinois recently. They've held opponents to 62 points per game on 37.4 percent shooting and 32.3 percent from three over the last three contests. The Illini had a strong defensive half against Penn State to close the game last month, but their defense was atrocious in the first half -- making for a deficit too big to overcome. Now, the Illini have the opportunity to string two defensive halves together, as they did in a win at Northwestern. Penn State is fifth in the conference in defensive efficiency. They turn you over. They block shots. The Lions will make things tough on Illinois' offense, but the Illini can hang tough by continuing their streak of good defense. They need to get out on Penn State's shooters this time around.

2. Balance and movement. The Illini offense had some really nice flow for stretches of the game on Tuesday. And that was against a good defensive team. The key is often having the ball in Lucas' hands. That's when it has the most life. He's able to make plays off the dribble and create opportunities for others. And the Illini also did a good job of using one of Lucas' passes to lead to another for a really good look. That's when you saw open threes for Finke in the corner. Or wide-open scores at the hoop. Hill does a lot for the Illini offensively, and he has the best ability to score. But the rest of the team can be stagnant when he's isolating at the top. The Illinois offense needs to flow and challenge Penn State to rotate and guard.

3. Right rotation. At Northwestern, Groce made the right adjustments to his lineup. Adjustments that have been called for constantly on the outside. He let Lucas roll at the point guard spot for big minutes. He gave Nichols over 20 minutes off the bench. He rode the hot hand in Finke down the stretch. And he shortened his rotation to put the best players on the floor. Groce likes the idea of 'strength in numbers'. But the numbers from Tuesday back it up. This team is better when they play an eight-man rotation for the bulk of the game. Will Groce continue to do the same or revert back to his old ways?


The Illini have to win back-to-back games just to get their wheels back on the tracks. A big run through the rest of the schedule is still unlikely, even though there are plenty of winnable games. This will be a tough one but surely winnable. Most spots in Vegas have the Illini as 4.5-point favorites. Illinois is at home. They're figuring it out defensively and with their rotations. They have a good chance to win, but consistency in that area hasn't been seen from this program in Big Ten play for quite some time.

Illinois 66, Penn State 60

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