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Penn State Basketball: Pickett’s ‘Booty Ball’ Leaves Illinois With No Answers

Jalen Pickett leads Penn State basketball against Indiana
Photo by Penn State Athletics: Jalen Pickett

CHICAGO — Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry couldn’t hold back a chuckle when he heard how Illinois coach Brad Underwood had described Jalen Pickett’s playing style in the second half as “booty ball.”

This is Underwood’s term for Pickett’s tendency to back down the lane.

“It’s really, really hard to guard,” Underwood said. “When you can keep possession of the ball for 12, 13 seconds and just keep backing up, and you have no recourse in how you guard it because you can’t touch them, it becomes very challenging.”

Pickett wasn’t a fan of Underwood’s description, but he was pleased that his posting up proved as effective as it did. Penn State made most of the key plays down the stretch, funneling its offense through Pickett’s drives. Penn State scored on 12 of its last 16 possessions, taking charge of the game and finishing off Illinois.

“I play a physical game,” Pickett said. “I don’t know about ‘booty ball.’ I kind of want to change that word, but I play a tough game.”

Regardless of the term, it proved too tricky for Illinois to handle. The Fighting Illini started the game barely defending the lane, making it easy for Pickett and Penn State to get any shot they wanted in the first half.

But when Illinois got into its defense behind Coleman Hawkins and Dain Dainja, Penn State had to change tactics. In most cases, that meant letting Pickett see the floor and make the correct decision. More often than not, that meant kicking the ball to a teammate Illinois had left open.

“They made a lot of big shots,” Pickett said. “Seth (Lundy) and (Andrew) Funk were great that first half. Cam (Wynter) was great. We’re a full team over here.

“I don’t have to force anything. Just try and make the right play every time down, get the right shot for Penn State. At the end, these guys make shots. So they work on their game, and I trust every one of them who steps on the floor.”

That’s the thing about “booty ball”: it only works if you have a solid second and third option to make the defense pay. If you don’t, the defense can double-team the player posting up and force a turnover.

With Penn State having multiple options besides Pickett, the Fighting Illini often found no answer.

“They made shots,” Underwood said. “They do a great job of guard-on-guard screening and getting a matchup that they like, and then Pickett just literally takes the ball and pounds nails until he gets it where he wants. Ty Rodgers helped on one and gave up a three, and you fight that decision.

“Do you want to double? He was 4 of 10, and they were just twos. But then we had a couple opportunities. We got fouled. We missed a couple in the paint, and all of a sudden, it’s a little bit of a run.”

To make matters worse for Illinois, Pickett wasn’t the only one spreading the ball around. Once he’d make his initial pass, Penn State wouldn’t always stop there. If Penn State had a good shot off Pickett’s first pass, it would take it. If not, Penn State made the extra pass to try for a great shot.

The best example came near the four-minute mark, with Penn State up five. After Pickett drove the lane again, he spotted Lundy, who was open for a good but not great look. Lundy looked left and dished the ball to Funk, who was wide open for a triple. Funk’s shot swished cleanly, making the lead 67-59 and essentially slamming the door on the Illini.

“(Pickett) trusts every single one of those guys, like I can make the pass, the right pass, and then they’re going to make the right play,” Shrewsberry said. “I think Seth’s extra pass from the corner to the wing to Funk was one of the best plays all season for us. That’s who we are. That’s who we want to be. I was so happy he made that play.”

In the end, that’s what “booty ball” really was for Penn State and why Illinois’ efforts weren’t as successful. As Pickett and Shrewsberry pointed out, the Fighting Illini tried to do the same thing with Hawkins, using his height advantage to post up. But Illinois didn’t have the second option, making Illinois force shots with Hawkins and hope for the best.

Meanwhile, Pickett wasn’t hoping; he was creating opportunities for himself and his teammates.

“All he’s doing is playing basketball,” Shrewsberry said. “You could say, yeah, he’s got the dribble, and he’s backing people down, but they’re playing ‘booty ball’ in the paint. They’re doing the same exact thing as us, just from a different position on the floor, the way they were posting Dainja, the way they were posting Hawkins in the middle of the court. We just chose to start it in a different area.

Pickett is having one of the best seasons in Penn State history, and Shrewsberry knows it. 

“He’s a good player,” Shrewsberry said. “It’s hard to stop. It’s hard to deal with. That’s why he’s an All-American.”

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