It’s Big Ten Tournament time, and 10th-seeded Penn State is taking on No. 7 Illinois in Chicago.
Here are five things to know before Penn State tries to seal an NCAA Tournament bid.
OWNING THE ILLINI
Penn State didn’t just beat Illinois in both regular-season meeting— it outclassed the Illini. Penn State creamed Illinois in Champaign in December, 74-59. More than two months later, Jalen Pickett’s 41 points and eight assists led Penn State to a 93-81 win at the Bryce Jordan Center.
The fact that Penn State beat Illinois twice by double digits at different stages of the season is a good indicator that Micah Shrewsberry’s squad matches up well with Brad Underwood’s. At the same time, it’s difficult to beat a team three times, especially one that’s a lock for the NCAA Tournament, which Illinois is.
Penn State’s best player and one of the best in school history had the best game of his college career and one of the best in school history in the aforementioned second meeting with Illinois.
Pickett probably won’t need to score 41 again for Penn State to get a W. But it wouldn’t hurt.
Despite losing to Penn State twice, Illinois finished the season with a better record by one game, both overall (20-11) and in the Big Ten (11-9). Illinois has one of the best offenses in the Big Ten, averaging 74.6 points in the regular season, good for third in the conference. Terrance Shannon Jr. leads the way, averaging more than 17 points per game, which is seventh in the conference. Matthew Mater (13 PPG) and Jayden Epps (10 PPG) are also ones to watch. It must be said that Epps is dealing with a concussion and missed the team’s regular-season finale with Purdue, so that’s something to monitor.
Defensively, Illinois gave up 66.6 points per game in the regular season, which was ninth in the Big Ten. Illinois did a decent enough job at defending the 3-ball this year, ranking sixth in the conference in opposing 3-point percentage.
But Penn State clicked from beyond the arc in both regular-season meetings. In December, Penn State shot 12-24 from 3. In February, Penn State shot 12–28. A similar shooting performance Thursday would likely spell trouble for Illinois.
PENN STATE HAS TO WIN… MAYBE
Penn State might get in the NCAA Tournament without beating Illinois. The team is currently one of ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s last four in, and a tournament case could still be made if Penn State is a Big Ten Tournament one-and-done. But Penn State doesn’t want to risk it, and a loss and Chicago would make Thursday night- early Sunday evening a tense period for the program and its fans.
SPREAD/HOW TO WATCH
Illinois is a 2.5-point favorite according to FanDuel Sportsbook. The game is scheduled for 6:30 ET on the Big Ten Network. Here’s more information on how to watch and listen.
TV Announcers: Brandon Gaudin (PXP), Robbie Hummel (color), Rick Pizzo (sideline)
Radio: Penn State Sports Network
Radio Announcers: Steve Jones (PXP), Dick Jerardi (analyst)
SiriusXM: Channel 84 (regular and app)