In both regular-season meetings between Penn State basketball and Illinois, Penn State was at its best.
In the first meeting, which took place in Champaign Dec. 10, Penn State upset the then-No. 17 Illini 74-59.
That’s still Penn State’s only Big Ten road win.
In the second meeting, set in Happy Valley, Illinois caught Penn State when it was reeling.
Penn State had dropped four in a row and five of six. In the process, it’s gone from promising NCAA Tournament hopefuls to March Madness long shots.
But much to Illinois coach Brad Underwood’s chagrin, the result wasn’t any better for his team the second time around.
Underwood knows his team could have been better in its 93-81 loss, but he also knows that Penn State was on its A-game, and he made it clear to those gathered in the Bryce Jordan Center’s media room after the game how good he thought Penn State played Tuesday.
“They probably would have beat the Celtics,” Underwood said.
Truthfully, Penn State probably wouldn’t have beat the Celtics. The best college basketball team probably wouldn’t beat the worst NBA team, so one could imagine the odds of a team with a losing conference record beating the team with the NBA’s best record.
But Penn State was pretty darn good for a college team Tuesday night, and Jalen Pickett was otherworldly.
Penn State played its first game in the Bryce Jordan Center in January 1996.
As of Tuesday night, no men’s basketball player has scored more points in a single game than Pickett did against Underwood’s Illini. Pickett scored 41 points, the first time since 1961– more than five years before Joe Paterno’s first game as head football coach– that a Penn State player hit 40. He made 15 of 20 field goals, five of nine 3-pointers and all six free throws, adding eight assists along the way.
Underwood saw what everybody who watched the game saw Tuesday; Pickett makes Penn State’s offense go.
“They do as much guard-on-guard screening, because of Pickett, than anybody in the country,” he said. “And then, when you can keep the ball all night and never have to give it up. And if you blitz them, he passes it out. I think they’re one of the best teams in the country in lowest turnover rate out of double teams. So, it’s a good offensive team. It’s a really good offensive team.”
Penn State is fifth in the Big Ten in scoring, and Pickett averages more than 17 points per game to lead it.
As impressed as Underwood was with Pickett, he had one complaint that wasn’t necessarily about Pickett but related to him.
He feels the NCAA should institute a five-second rule, limiting the time a player can dribble with his back or side to the basket.
Wanna see every basket from Jalen Pickett's historic night?
— Penn State On BTN (@PennStateOnBTN) February 15, 2023
The NBA has this rule, and Pickett is a player who benefits from this rule not being in place at the college level.
Underwood wants this to change.
“It becomes impossible to guard,” Underwood said, “because he can just hold the ball all night. College basketball, in my opinion, needs to look at that rule.
“When a guy can keep the ball… and you can’t guard him. He turns his back and you can’t touch him.”
But at the end of the day, Underwood knew the better team won.
“They were great tonight,” he said.