Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Penn State Upsets the Illini Again (Last Night was a Sequel No Illini Fan Wanted to Watch)

Mike Cagley, Co-Host IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular

February 15, 2023

Ugly loss tonight to the Penn State Nittany Lions who beat Illini 93-81 for the regular season sweep of the Illini.

Heat Check #1 – Pickett Goes for 41

Jalen Pickett took advantage of Illini mistakes and also hit some very tough shots as he cruised to a 15-20 shooting performance that included 5-9 from the 3-point line and 6-6 from the free throw line.

The Illini made mistakes by going under picks (particularly in the first half) allowing Pickett to step into shots and get his confidence going. The Illini also executed switches as a response to picks that were head scratchers. Coleman Hawkins getting picked with the result being Pickett is guarded by Dain Dainja put the Illini center in a very tough spot. Jayden Epps also was forced to defend the larger and more experience Pickett. That didn't work out very well for the Illini or Epps.

To Pickett’s credit, he also hit incredibly tough jumpers over Hawkins and Dainja that demonstrated why many have him as an All-American candidate this season. Against the Illini, he might as well be Michael Jordan.

Heat Check #2 – Valentine’s Day Déjà vu of December 10

The Illini were hit hard by the Nittany Lions in the first half back in December. Penn State came out and shot 62% in the first half building up a 47-38 lead. They would end up cooling off to shoot “only” 50% from the field for the game on their way to an easy 74-59 victory.

Jalen Pickett was impressive with a 20-point performance with 7 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals. That was just a precursor to what was in store for the Illini on Valentine’s Day.

Last night, Penn State came out even hotter than in December. The Nittany Lions shot 62.5% on their way to a commanding 53-40 lead. In similar fashion, the Nittany Lions “cooled off” in the second half, but they still shot 57.9% from the field for the game. Penn State cruised to a 93-81 victory that was as devoid of drama as the first game.

As for Pickett, he ended up with the highest scoring game of the Big Ten season to date. He had 41 points, 2 rebounds, 8 assists and a steal. If he elevated his game that much from his first game against the Illini, one wonders what Tracye Jackson-Davis will do against the Illini defense on Saturday. Jackson-Davis scored 35 on the road against the Illini. What will he do in the friendly confines of Indiana’s Assembly Hall?

Heat Check #3 – A Bad Start Nullifies the Positives

The Illini lost by 12 to one of the teams battling to climb to the middle of the Big Ten standings. Worse is the way the Illini wasted a good performance in a lot of areas that they have struggled to do well earlier in the season. If someone had told me that the Illini would only turn the ball over 8 times, go 16-20 from the free throw line and outrebound the Nittany Lions while shooting 47.5%, I’d have said the Illini were going to win. But they didn’t. Why didn’t they?

My theory is the slow starts that have plagued the Illini since Bill Self walked out the door (with the exception of the 05-06 team) are particularly challenging for this Illini team. They have a tendency start off slow at both ends of the court on most days. But starting off slowly on defense is extremely dangerous. This Illini team is not a good shooting team. If they start slowly defensively, opponents gain confidence quickly and a team on a poor shooting streak can suddenly get hot (Penn State last night). More importantly, the Illini aren't a good enough shooting team to counter when their opponents get on a hot streak.

The Illini have to find a way to come out ready for action on both ends of the court particularly on defense. They must impose their will on their opponents to prevent any confidence bursts that will cost the Illini later on. The staff must figure out a way to get a wakeup call for their team that gets this group ready to play. Don’t let the opponents set the game pace. Push opponents early and get them out of their comfort zone. Use the press, if that would get the team fired up.

Bad defensive starts matter. This team can't wait to heat up until 15 minutes are left in the game.  They aren't good enough shooters to rely on their shooting to win games, especially when the opponent has a chance to build up their confidence.

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