What Illinois Basketball Needs to Do to Beat the Penn State Nittany Lions

Mar 10, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions coach Patrick Chambers coaches against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the Big Ten Conference tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 10, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions coach Patrick Chambers coaches against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the Big Ten Conference tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports /

Illinois basketball will try to get a much needed “roadie” today at Penn State.

The Nittany Lions are always a tough out for the Illini, and for many teams. But this, dare I say, is a must win game. Yes, that phrase is overused by all of us. But if the Illini can pull off a win today they will not only have strung together a couple victories, but they will prove to themselves, and their fans, that they can prevail on the road.

Believe it or not, as we prepare to enter February (the last full month of regular play) the Illini have not won a road game. Here is how I think they can secure the first one.


The Illini should go about nine deep. Start Tejon Lucas at PG, Jalen Coleman-Lands at SG, Malcolm Hill at SG/SF, Leron Black at SF, and Maverick Morgan at Center.  This combo proved to be lethal against an admittedly underperforming Iowa team. But they looked good together.

Rotate in Mike Thorne on occasion for Morgan. Thorne is a large man, and despite the fact that he has under-performed, his presence on defense is very disruptive. He clearly alters shots on a routine basis. Both he and Morgan – especially Morgan – need to be VERY hungry for the ball. The Illini can dominate the boards in this game, but only if these two want it. Otherwise, look for PSU’s Mike Watkins (currently No. 5 in B1G play at 7.9 RPG) to hoover em up.

And speaking of rebounding, Black will also need a big game. Black currently sits at No. 11 in RPG in conference play at 6.7 per game. He can also score, and shoots it well from the line. I would like to see a big game from Mr. Black. Kipper Nichols and Michael Finke should rotate in for Black, with Finke getting the bulk of those minutes.

But, Finke is also a good sub in for JCL if we want to go big (think Morgan, Finke, and Black). JCL is obviously improving his game and had a pretty good outing against the Hawkeyes, but he needs to work on getting open so he has more shots in rhythm. I expect him to get to that “next level” soon. Maybe this will be the game. If not, Finke is a capable replacement from the arc.

When JCL needs to be spelled, Tracy Abrams is also a logical choice to come in. Abrams is another player who is just waiting to have a bust out game. He regained some confidence against Iowa, and perhaps that will translate well against the Nittany Lions. We’d all like to see a little more of the non-conference version of Abrams.

Hill needs to play 30-35 minutes and have a huge game. Illinois needs his scoring. Nichols and Finke can also rotate in to give him a break. And while this rotation largely contemplates nine guys, Jordan is also available if necessary.

More from Writing Illini

Finally, Tejon Lucas has proven that he is the man to run this offense. He dribbles, runs, and passes like a true point guard. He is a threat to score, so defenses have to collapse on him when he gets in the paint. The majority of the time, on those drives, he finds someone open who can shoot, drive, or dish. However, with a high-revving motor like his, he needs breaks with some frequency. Sorry fans, but he does need to recharge. This gives quality minutes to Abrams.


Call me Captain Obvious, but in a word, Illinois needs to score. I have a key to defense, but let’s face it: The Illini are only OK in that category. In contrast, Illinois is very good on offense. Kenpom has the Illini’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency ranking at No. 69. PSU is ranked in that category at No. 203. So we need to press our advantage here. That is why a breakout game from Abrams and JCL couldn’t be more timely. Sounds easy, right?

Well, the Nittany Lions Adjusted Defensive Efficiency ranking is No. 32. That is damn good. They will be all over our hottest hands. So, we’ll need to spread the wealth with multiple players in double figures, and someone having an exceptional scoring performance. Who will it be? I’m putting my money on old man Abrams.

Finally, Hill needs to get to the line. That is always a good sign for the Illini.

More from Writing Illini


Here, the key is rebounding. Again, the Illini need Morgan, Thorne, Finke, and Black to fight like hell for the ball. Of those four players, Thorne won’t see significant minutes, so it’ll be up to the other three, with big help from Nichols and Hill.   We need hungry dogs out there going after the last damn bone in the world.

As stated, PSU doesn’t shoot all that well. They rank a horrid No. 324 on two-point shooting and No. 174 on threes. That opens the door for rebounds and fast breaks. That fits very well into an overall offensive plan of piling on the points.

But it doesn’t stop there. The Illini need to do a better than average job of stopping PSU’s scoring. The Nittany Lions spread the floor well, with four starters in low double figures. In my view, the Illini must first and foremost attack the point guard, Tony Carr. He is a freshman, and the Illini need to force him to have a freshman type of game.

Obviously, if the point guard is disrupted, the entire offense is struggling. After him, they should pressure Shep Garner who can also distribute the ball well. In short, Illinois needs to disrupt PSU’s offensive flow. Attacking those two is the best way to do that.

Finally, keep Watkins from getting offensive rebounds. He has 51 total this year. The Illini need to push him around and limit his grabs so that PSU doesn’t have many second chance shots.

Next: Do the Illini have seven wins left in them?


On offense, the Illini need to see scoring from multiple players and they need someone to have a dominant scoring game. On defense, grab many more rebounds than the other team. Good rebounding leads to second-chances and fast break opportunities. Finally, pressure the point guards so as to disrupt PSU’s offensive flow.

If the Illini does these things, We Will Win!