The No. 9 Penn State Nittany Lions look to tighten up the top of the Big Ten standings when they host the Illinois Fighting Illini on Tuesday night. Penn State has won eight in a row and sits at 10-4 in league play, a game behind first-place Maryland for the conference lead. Illinois has dropped four in a row and is currently in a tie for sixth place with Wisconsin at 8-6.
The Illini have been hurt by the injury to sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu at the end of their loss to Michigan State a week ago. Dosunmu, Illinois’ leading scorer at 15.8 points per game, hurt his knee and is considered day-to-day, but he isn’t listed among the projected starters for coach Brad Underwood’s squad for this one.
Penn State is a 6.5-point favorite in this one, with the over/under set at 140.5.
Needing A Win
The Illini were in first place when they lost to Maryland three games ago, but that is just a memory now. Illinois just needs to get a win to get its confidence back, especially if Dosunmu isn’t able to go for a while.
Underwood’s team isn’t a one-man show, though, as freshman big man Kofi Cockburn is one of the best in the league. Cockburn is averaging 13.6 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, but he’s slumped a bit of late, scoring 10 or fewer points in four of the last six games. The Illini need him to play big against a Penn State team that is in the top five in the league in rebounding.
If Dosunmu is unable to go — and even if he is — the backcourt duo of Trent Frazier (9.5 points, team-high 45 three-pointers) and Andres Feliz (11.2 points, 2.8 assists) will need to play well to keep Illinois in the game. Feliz has been a great scorer off the bench for the Illini and has turned it up the last six games, averaging 14.3 points.
Solid On Both Ends
Penn State has really put it together lately, with coach Pat Chambers’ squad getting contributions from a number of different players. The leader is Lamar Stevens, who averages 17.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. But he’s not the only offensive threat in the Lions’ den.
Sophomore guard Myreon Jones can get heated up from the outside in a hurry, averaging 14.1 points and hitting 41.3 percent from beyond the arc. Inside, Mike Watkins is a force on both ends, leading the Nittany Lions in rebounding (8.0) and blocked shots (2.6) while scoring 10.0 points per game as well.
The Penn State defense is also tough, with Watkins on the interior and Jamari Wheeler (1.7) and Jones (1.3) ranking first and tied for second in the Big Ten in steals, respectively.
Penn State Rolls
It’s hard to see Illinois being able to turn things around against what has become a Penn State juggernaut. Even if Dosunmu plays, he won’t be the same player he was before the injury immediately, and Penn State’s guards will certainly be applying pressure on him with that in mind. The Nittany Lions are just too tough defensively against a struggling Illini offense. I’m taking Penn State -6.5.