There is plenty to motivate both Illinois and Penn State at Happy Valley. They became a national embarrassment when they struggled to a 38-33 result in Champaign, both teams painfully incompetent putting the ball in the basket. That alone is reason for both teams to focus on the task at hand.
But Penn State is also hungry for a rare NCAA Tournament invitation. The Nittany Lions are presently 9-7 in the league, but two losses this week could harm their postseason hopes since they have a poor strength of schedule. Two wins could guarantee no worse than fourth in the conference, give them a better seeding for the Big 10 Tournament and enhance their NCAA resume.
For Illinois, a win is essential for seeding in both tournaments. The Illini would end up no worse than a tie for second in the league, giving them a good seeding for the upcoming Big 10 Tournament. Bruce Weber, experienced in the NCAA Tournament process and aware of the importance of seeding, wants his Illini to earn the best seed possible.
"You never want to be an 8/9 (seed), I don't think. You play each other, and then you play the top seed after. But if you are in the top 4, you can be close to home, and it's great for fans, your families and players. Obviously, we had the unbelieveable run going through Indy, Chicago and St. Louis (2005), and that was a major advantage. It is a factor.
"I used to just want to get into the tournament. But a lot of crazy things can happen if you hit at the right time and things fall into place. I think it is important."
Weber expands on the rewards possible with a win.
"We need a real sense of urgency. It is a big game. There is a lot riding on it for us. A top three finish in the Big 10. Another road win which would be very positive for us. Quality wins, RPI, seeding in the NCAA Tournament. For us to get to 24 wins, a nice accomplishment. And then feeling good about ourselves going into postseason."
Of course, there is even more reason for the Illini players to focus on Penn State.
"I hope there's a little bit of bitterness or bad taste in their mouths from the Michigan State game," Weber adds. "We had some chances and didn't get it done. And how we failed the Penn State game and the criticism we received after that game. So there are a lot of things that should be motivating factors to help us play good basketball out there."
As bad as Illinois played in the first game, PSU shot even more poorly despite coming away with the win. So the team that takes the home floor Thursday will likely be stronger and more confident than in the earlier encounter. And with special players like speedster guards Talor Battle and Stanley Pringle plus muscle man Jamelle Cornley, they have three players for whom the Illini do not match up well.
In crunch time, Battle can take over a game. Against Illinois, he began to penetrate successfully, setting up teammates for easy shots. And more often than not, he finished at the rim despite a height that is a good two inches shorter than his listed 5'-11". Since he, Pringle and reserve Danny Morrissey are permitted to shoot anytime, anywhere, the outside threat makes penetrations even more effective.
Weber knows what the Illini must do to win.
"We've got to play better. Obviously, make some shots. I don't think we came in with any sense of urgency (first game), and we just couldn't turn it on when we needed to. We had the one nice run in the second half and probably should have won the game there. Even down the stretch we had some chances. I think Ed will tell you they didn't play real well either. They only scored 38. It wasn't like they were a masterpiece by any means."
One thing that helps shooting percentage is to take shots close to the basket. Illinois' height advantage can be an asset if it is used properly. Weber has seen some improvement lately in Mike Tisdale's play in the low block, especially the second half of the Michigan State game.
"He has a tendency to hang his head and kind of back off, go into a shell, however you want to say it. And he didn't second half. He has played better for the most part at home. It's important Thursday night if he can back up what he did. We should be able to get it inside against Penn State. But then now you've got to finish it."
A big reason for the scoring drought in the first meeting centered around the aggressive, tough defense played by both teams. But even with the solid defense, Illinois guard Trent Meacham believes both teams will score better this time.
"I'm sure there's going to be people cracking jokes to see how many points we'll score. I'm sure we'll both top what we did last time."
Slender power forward Mike Davis knows PSU will be fired up.
"We're playing for second place now, so that will be a big stop for us. They beat us the last time on our home floor, so we'll try to even the series. This is big. Penn State is still trying to make their way into the tournament. Beating us would be a big win for them."
Calvin Brock, playing his last regular season game as an Illini, summed up what all Illini fans hope will happen.
"All the road games in the Big 10 are tough. We've been playing pretty well on the road, so hopefully we can keep it up. Penn State's a real tough team, and they beat us last game. We'd like to go out there and get some sweet revenge."