The Illini are back home to take on the hapless Penn State Nittany Lions on Thursday night at Assembly Hall. After a big road win at Northwestern the Illini carry a 4 game winning streak and have marched right back into the thick of the NCAA Tournament race.
On the other side of the fence, Penn State comes in having lost all 13 of their Big Ten games and are limping to the finish line in 2013.
Here are the keys to the game and a pick.
Setting the stage
Illinois (19-8, 6-7) vs. Penn State (8-17, 0-13)
Feb. 21, 2013 // 7:15 p.m.// Champaign, Ill. // Assembly Hall (16,618)
TV: BTN - Dave Revsine (Play-By-Play), Jim Jackson (Analyst)
Radio: Fighting Illini Sports Network - Brian Barnhart (Play-By-Play), Jerry Hester (Analyst)
Satellite Radio: Sirius - 94, XM - 19
*Illinois is one win away from recording its 20th victory. Illinois is aiming for its fourth 20-win season in the last five years, 12th in the last 14 years, and 30th all-time. Illinois has won four straight Big Ten games, its longest conference winning streak since winning five in a row from Jan. 27-Feb. 9, 2010.
*Brandon Paul is one point away from becoming the 10th player in Illini history to score 1,500 career points.
*Illinois has tightened the defense during its current four-game winning streak, a sharp contrast to the previous three games. Illinois has allowed an average of 56.3 points on 37.9 shooting over the last four games. The Illini are forcing an average of 14.5 turnovers and playing aggressively without fouling, as opponents are averaging just 14.5 free throw attempts. After Northwestern managed just 41 points on Sunday, the Illini have now held their opponent to less than 60 points in five of six conference wins (Ohio State-55, Nebraska-51, Minnesota-53, Purdue-59, Northwestern-41).
*DJ Richardson is second on the Illini in scoring with an average of 12.7 points, and leads the team in scoring during Big Ten play at 14.7 ppg. He has scored in double figures in each of the last eight games, averaging 17.3 points over that stretch (138). He carries a career-long active streak of 33 straight games making at least one 3-pointer, the longest by a player from a BCS conference. DJ is fourth among Big Ten players in 3-point field goals this season with an average of 2.4 makes per game and is third in school history in career 3-point field goals with 259. Richardson has also started 123 career games, fourth on the UI's all-time starts list
Keys to the game
1. Attack the basket - Penn State fouls, and they foul a lot. They are 344th in the country and 12th in the league in foul rate. For reference, the difference between 12th and 10th in the B1G is the same as the difference between 1st and 10th. The Illini have to get into the paint and get to the line against a team that is undermanned and lacks athleticism.
2. Pressure defense - The Nittany Lions also turn it over a lot, and the Illinois players should be able to get some 'pick 2's' and run outs if they get after the Nittany Lion guards and attack the post players as well. Illinois still needs sound positioning, but they can take a few chances against this squad and it will pay off.
3. Don't forget to show up - Penn State isn't very good, but they do rebound fairly well and we've seen that this Illinois team can settle at time and force bad shots. If the Illini take bad shots, and allow Penn State to hang around because they are reading that PSU is 0-13 in the league, it could mean a closer game than we probably need.
Illinois is playing well, and Penn State is not very good as evidenced by their winless Big Ten record. For Penn State to win, it would take a massive upset. Although I expect it to be tougher than it should be, Illinois pulls away and rolls, 75-58 and Penn State continues their slide towards and 0-18 conference mark, while the Illini get back to level at 7-7.