Pre-gamin’: Illinois vs. Penn State

1:00 February 11, 2017

TV: BTN

Radio: 97.5 FM WHMS 1400 AM WDWS

Questions Worth Asking

  1. Will John Groce go with a short bench like he did at Northwestern? As discussed after the win, nine Illini played and only eight saw more than 4 minutes. Illinois played its most “connected” game against the Wildcats. Coincidence? Groce was noncommittal.about sticking to an 8-man rotation going forward. He said he liked it for that game and will see about building on it. When asked, Te’Jon Lucas and Michael Finke wouldn’t directly say that fewer substitutions led to better rhythm and flow. Maybe there’s something we’re not seeing, or maybe they don’t want to comment on other guys’ playing time, but from an outside perspective it sure looked like fewer lineup changes led to more continuity and better play on both ends of the court.
  2. Will the Illinois defense continue to improve? Over the past five games, in which they’ve gone 2-3, Illinois is giving up an average of 64.2 points per game. This would be good for second in the Big Ten. Of course, that’s a small sample size, but it also coincides with Te’Jon Lucas working his way into the starting lineup. When asked what he could point to to account for the recent defensive progress, Groce cited an improved knowledge of the system, especially among the young guys. He singled out Kipper Nichols’s athleticism and versatility as well as Malcolm Hill’s energy on the defensive end. He saved his most effusive praise, however, for Lucas. Groce called Lucas’s role in picking up the opponent’s primary ball handler the “porch” of the Illini defense, and he said Te’Jon was playing the best perimeter defense of any freshman Groce had coached at Ohio or Illinois. If Lucas can trouble opposing ball handlers, the Illini defensive renaissance should continue.
  3. Can Illinois avoid another slow start? This question is frequently featured in the pregame because Illinois remains consistently sluggish out of the gates. Maybe we just need to accept that the answer is often “no.” It’s worth watching, though, whether the improved defense can hold the opponent in check even if the Illini continue to start slow offensively. That’s what happened against the Wildcats. Illinois didn’t score for the first four minutes of the game, but Northwestern didn’t break 10 points until 11 minutes had passed. By that point, Illinois had built a 9-point lead. In the first game against Penn State, Illinois traded baskets with the Nittany Lions for the first seven minutes before going cold and letting Penn State build a 20-point halftime lead. Illinois came all the way back to get that game within 3 in the final minutes. If the Illini can rely on their defense to weather shooting slumps, those slow starts won’t get so out of hand.

Final Thoughts

Penn State and Illinois are both coming into this one with some momentum after recent rough patches. The Nittany Lions earned their biggest win of the year this week when they defeated #21 Maryland at home 70-64. Previously, Penn State had lost 5 out of 6 (guess who that one win was against?). Illinois scored their first road victory of the season against a solid Northwestern team on Tuesday after losing 6 out of 7. Penn State sits one spot ahead of Illinois in the Big Ten standings, but Illinois is a better team. If they can keep the defense rolling and settle into a limited substitution pattern, I like the Illini by 10 at home.

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