Illini Basketball Preview - Illini vs Penn State

Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer

March 3, 2022


#20 ILLINOIS (20-8, 13-5) vs. Penn State (12-14, 7-11)
Date | Time Thursday, March 3, 2022 | 6 p.m. CT
Location Champaign, Ill. | State Farm Center
Television FS1 (Joe Davis & Casey Jacobsen)
Live Stream | FOX Sports App
Radio  Busey Bank Illini Sports Network | Listen | Varsity Network App | Sirius 133, XM 195, SXM App 957
Cockburn for Player of Year


All-Time Record: Illinois leads 31-19
Streak: Illinois W-3
Last Meeting: #22 Illinois 79, Penn State 65  (1/19/2021 at Champaign)
Record at Champaign: Illinois leads 15-8
Streak at Champaign: Illinois W-1
Underwood vs. Penn State: 3-3

After Wisconsin's victory Tuesday over Purdue, Illinois is no longer in control of their own destiny. It will take a Nebraska upset of Wisconsin this weekend for Illinois to have a shot at a regular season B1G title. For that to happen, the Illini still need to take care of business and win out at home against Penn State and Iowa.

With a record of 12-14 overall and 7-11 in conference, Penn State isn't exactly the toughest competition. They have played multiple quality teams down to the wire including a 2-point loss to Wisconsin, a 1-point loss to Michigan, and were able to get upsets over Iowa and Michigan State.

Penn State doesn't have the star power of many of the B1G teams. There's no Kofi Cockburn, Johnny Davis, EJ Liddell, or Keeghan Murray to worry about. But they feature a team with four players who score between 10 and 13 points per game. Led by Jaylen Pickett and Seth Lundy, the Nittany Lions should struggle to score against the Illini defense as they've only scored more than 70 a mere 4 times since the new year. As per usual, Illini defensive intensity should dictate the gap between the two teams on the scoreboard.

3 Questions

Question #1 - Does Kofi's Dominant Run Continue?

John Harrar has had absolutely zero success against Kofi Cockburn. Barring early foul trouble, expect Kofi to return to his double-double form with a typical Kofi 20+ point and 10+ rebound effort.

When Kofi hasn't gotten double digit boards, it's been because of either foul trouble or not having as many offensive rebound opportunities when the team/Kofi is scoring well. He could emphasize hunting defensive rebounds in order to get back to his usual double-double self.

Question #2 - Can Luke Goode or Brandin Podziemski Get More Game Experience

Luke Goode courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys.

With Benjamin Bosmans Verdonk and RJ Melendez both being out for the Penn State game, it offers Luke Goode and Brandin Podziemski an opportunity to get some playing time.

Luke Goode has snagged rebounds in his limited time on the floor. Most of these boards have been a demonstration of what hustle and effort can do for a player. It would be nice for him to get a couple of easy looks on offense. Confidence is important for a young player and going into the B1G tourney, he might be able to score when coming off the bench to help that confidence.

Against Northwestern, a B1G team with a similar 13-15 record, Podziemski scored 5 points coming off the bench. Against Missouri, he had 7 points. Penn State may provide an opportunity for the shooting guard to put some points on the board as well. It would be a positive for him to play well defensively after having a rough time against Branham of Ohio State. It is worth noting that Branham is a legitimate NBA player and many others have had the same issue that Podziemski had that night.

Question #3 - Can the Sophomore Standouts Continue Their Upward Playing Trajectories?

Coleman Hawkins courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys

Coleman Hawkins is attacking the glass with intensity, he's willing to shoot from the outside and he's continued playing good defense. This is important because for the short term, the Illini don't have an athlete like RJ Melendez to turn to if Coleman Hawkins is having a rough night.

The next weapon to add to Coleman's arsenal would be to successfully play the stretch 5 when Kofi is out of the game and Omar Payne is plagued by fouls. If he can do this well, he may keep his minutes at the 4 and add those minutes at the 5 and be playing in the upper 20 minutes or so during the NCAA tourney. This would be a huge benefit to the Illini if Hawkins could stay out of foul trouble while contributing in this fashion to the team's success.

Andre Curbelo has looked better as of late because he has been going to the basket with more authority. When he pressures the rim with his drives, it opens up shooting lanes for Trent Frazier and Alfonso Plummer. He also has the opportunity to dish the ball to Kofi when driving. In essence, the defense has to actively guard the whole court when Curbelo is playing well. While his turnovers need to be cut down, Underwood has a lot less issues with turnovers when Andre's 5-7 and shooting layups.

He has contributed the assists that people expected from him, and he's still rebounding well, especially for a point guard. Curbelo's rebounding provides the Illini more possessions which is invaluable during tournament time.

Most importantly, on defense he drops into the land with quick digs which forces offensive players in the paint to pick up their dribble. There have been resulting passes out of the post that have been turnovers due to this technique. This doesn't show up on the stat sheet for Curbelo, but it makes the Illini a much more challenging defense when he's active.

Prediction - Illinois 78, Penn State 62

With a conference championship still on the line - at least until Wisconsin beats Nebraska on Sunday, Illinois will want to avoid adding a blemish to their NCAA resume. Right now, they're expected to be a 4 seed and a loss to Penn State would be disastrous.

This Penn State team is going to need an infusion of talent next season and clearly talent is an area that the Illini will have a huge advantage. The Illini should turn that advantage into a relatively stress-free victory.


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