Building big leads during its seven-game losing streak has been less of a problem for Penn State than you might think. It's holding onto those leads that has been a big problem for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State had Wisconsin on the run for 39 minutes Sunday in the Kohl Center, where the Badgers had beaten each of their 50 previous unranked Big Ten opponents. But Jordan Taylor made a layup with 26 seconds left to erase the last two points of what had been a 16-point second half Penn State lead, and the Badgers took control of the game in overtime.
The Nittany Lions, who also let a 16-point second-half lead slip away in a home loss to Michigan and couldn't hold an 11-point first-half lead at Iowa, played as well against Wisconsin as they have all season, frustrating the Badgers with a 2-3 zone defense and getting at least 12 points from three different players. But they couldn't stop Taylor down the stretch and committed turnovers on a number of key possessions.
Nittany Lions guard Talor Battle, who has averaged 27 points over his last three games, is shooting the ball well and creating good scoring opportunities for his teammates. Penn State will need more consistency on defense to complement Battle's playmaking.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber empathizes with his coaching pal Ed DeChellis. The Wisconsin loss was a heartbreaker for PSU.
"Sometimes you're just not supposed to win, I guess. It seemed like they did everything right except find a way to win the game. They played very good basketball. They have had some games where they're very in tune and playing well, and then other games they aren't.
"Sunday they were ready to go. Maybe Wisconsin wasn't, I don't know. I was shocked when they were up 16, and yet they couldn't find a way to win it. You would think they would be pretty low, but you never know. Maybe they could use it as a rallying point. I know they feel like they have a hex on us. It'll be interesting to see how their kids react to it."
Illinois has its own problems. A lack of leadership and consistency has led to their downfall on several occasions, and Weber is searching for answers. A team meeting and a formal voting for team captains are efforts to get the team focused on winning games. Weber sees good signs and hopes for more.
"It was a tough week last week. We played good basketball in spurts. We have to find a way to finish games, put teams away or be in control of games. It's consistency from our upperclassmen so we know what we're gonna get every game. That hasn't happened up to this point.
"We're hoping we can turn the corner here somewhere and get the consistency we need to be a successful team. We knew it would be tough to win at Northwestern. They're a good basketball team, and they played teams well up there. We improved since the first time.
"They scored 13 points on out of bounds plays the first time, and I don't believe they scored any this time. I thought we did a better job on the handoffs into threes. The kids were prepared.
"And yet we got to that point between the 12 and 6 minute mark in the second half. We had the lead, we just couldn't make the plays and maybe didn't get the breaks, calls or whatever to go our way to grab the game and be able to win. We've had problems with the starts, the starts of the second halves, and now learning to finish it. Somehow, we need to put it all together."
Mike Davis had a poor game against Penn State in the first meeting. Part of that was the great defense by David Jackson, the second leading scorer for the Nittany Lions. Davis also struggled against Northwestern. Weber says illness may have played a role.
"He came into the locker during warmups and said he was a little bit nauseated. Our team physician gave him something to settle his upset stomach. I was hoping it wasn't a big deal.
"A lot of times guys, whether it's the butterflies before the games, maybe something they ate, just nervous before the game. But maybe it affected him more than I anticipated. Obviously he didn't get much done, especially on the stat line."
The Illini will need the double-double machine Davis to show up Wednesday. They will also need center Mike Tisdale to play more aggressively but smarter to avoid fouls. His passivity against NW led to numerous problems and limited his effectiveness.
"He has to learn to move his feet," Weber described. "And he's still got to learn he can be physical. People are physical with him, but you've got to know how to do it. The rule states you can have contact up close, but you've got to release.
"I think he got to the point where he didn't even have contact he was so afraid. If you have hard contact, you're not gonna get the calls go against you. He gets the soft contact, the arms coming down or the hands on the back. If you use your body to create physical contact and then release, and then move your feet, he would be in better shape as far as guarding in the post. But I agree he became a little bit tentative."
Tisdale and point guard Demetri McCamey need more rest during the game. That way, they can be fresher for both offense and defense late in the game. Jeff Jordan will spell McCamey, while freshman Tyler Griffey should get more minutes backing up Tisdale according to Weber.
"He (Griffey) has a great attitude, he works and comes in more than anyone in the gym. He does have some deficiencies on defense and block-outs, but he cares. He's there early, he's there late. You've got to reward a kid for that."
Tisdale realizes Penn State will be ready for a solid effort.
"It's gonna be tough. We had difficulties at home with them, so going to their place is gonna be that much tougher. We've got to come ready to play."
Battle shot poorly in Champaign, going 4-19. That won't happen again. Tisdale knows the Illini will need to focus on stopping the mighty might.
"Yeah, he's at home. It's not too often he struggles shooting. We've really got to keep the pressure on him and force him into some bad shots."
Part of the problem of facing PSU at their home is that travel difficulties can wear on you according to Tisdale. The length of the trip plus the long bus ride to and from the airport are a nuisance.
"Yeah, a little bit. It's a little bit different going into the Valley down there. A little more bumpy on the plane. But it's just another trip. We've got to be ready to play. It's more difficult, but that can't be an excuse."
Nittany Lions marketing people offer incentives to attract more fans, but the lack of enthusiasm of the home crowd also is an annoyance to Tisdale.
"There's not always the energy in the arena as there is other places. But it's a tough place to play. We struggled there the last couple years. It's always been a close game. This time we're a different team, and hopefully we can have a better outcome."
Illini freshman guard D.J. Richardson did a tremendous job guarding Battle in Champaign, and he will need to study Battle's tendencies even more for this game. He remains optimistic the Illini can turn things around despite the obstacles in Happy Valley.
"We've lost some tough games, but our goal right now is still to make the NCAA Tournament. Right now we're a pretty good team. We just have to learn how to finish a game.