UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The last time the Illinois Fighting Illini won a men’s basketball game it was against the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Today, Illinois will attempt to snap the school’s longest losing skid in 40 years when the Fighting Illini travel to Happy Valley for the second contest of the year against the Nittany Lions.
But, according to Illinois coach John Groce, the Fighting Illini will need to get back to playing solid defense like they did in the first matchup.
“We won that game because we defended,’’ said Groce on Friday. “That’s the drum that we will beat the next day or two is trying to get that back, imposing our will on the defensive end.
“If it was a toughness issue or a chemistry issue or a togetherness issue, than I would be really concerned. But it’s not. At the end of the day, we have got to do the best that we can to get the absolute most out of this team. I proud of their collective toughness through the 23 games.’’
Ironically, the defense was one area that had been pretty solid for the Fighting Illini, even during their eight-game losing streak. But in Tuesday’s 75-63 loss to Wisconsin, Illinois managed just two defensive stops in the final eight minutes.
“That was a little bit discouraging,’’ Groce admitted. “Our calling card the majority of the year, the one thing that we have been fairly consistent, was defending in the half court.’’
So just as the Fighting Illini (13-10 overall, 2-8 in the Big Ten) seemingly has corrected one problem, offensive production, a new one has developed.
“We are trying to get our defensive disposition back, I thought our offense in the two home games was as good as its been in a long time,’’ Groce said. “I thought our ball movement was good. I thought we took care of the ball well.
“We shot a much higher percentage from the field, a high percentage from 3, and a high percentage from the line. I thought we did some really good things on that end of the floor that made me feel very optimistic about the direction our offense is going.’’
Illinois, which had one of the lowest field goal percentages of any Division I program in the month of January, is still only making 42.6 percent of its shots this month, but the Fighting Illini is averaging 68.5 points per game, which is nearly 13 points per game more than during the first six losses of its skid.
That improved offensive output will go against a Penn State defense that is allowing the second-most points of any Big Ten team in league play, but Groce has seen improvement in the Nittany Lions, who are 12-11 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten.
“Their defense has continued to improve,’’ said the Illinois coach. “I think a large part of that has to do with the size and shot-blocking ability of Jordan Dickerson and Donovan Jack.
“And their perimeter defenders are older, physically strong, quick and tough. They contribute to their defensive success.’’
Those perimeter defenders are guards Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill, that duo is also the main offensive threat for Penn State as they average 34.0 points per game.
“Newbill and Frazier weren’t quite as effective against us as they have been in other games,’’ said Groce as they combined for just 17 points in the first meeting. Frazier had 10 points and Newbill, who was ejected, had just seven. “Those guys are a big key. When they put big numbers up as they are the fifth highest scoring backcourt in the country, they are difficult to defend and beat. Their ability to get in the paint is very difficult and challenging.’’
Today’s game is set for 3:15 p.m. tipoff. The Big Ten Network is televising the game and it can be heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.
Game 24 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Penn State Nittany Lions Site -- Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, Pa. When -- 3:15 p.m., today Records -- Illinois 13-10 overall, 2-8 in the Big Ten Conference; Penn State 12-11 overall, 3-7 in the Big Ten Conference. Rankings -- Neither team is ranked in the latest Associated Press Top 25 Poll. Television -- Big Ten Network Radio -- Fighting Illini Sports Network with Brian Barnhart and Jerry Hester. Local stations include WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1. Previous results -- Illinois leads the all-time series 26-13, including a 75-55 win over Penn State on Jan. 4 at the State Farm Center. Last games -- The Illini lost on Tuesday to the Wisconsin Badgers 75-63 in Champaign; while the Nittany Lions lost on Thursday to the Michigan State Spartans 82-67 in East Lansing, Mich. Up next -- Illinois will travel to Lincoln, Neb. on Wednesday to play the Nebraska Cornhuskers in an 8 p.m. contest; while Penn State journeys to Bloomington, Ind.. on Wednesday for a 6 p.m. game against the Indiana Hoosiers. Starting lineups -- Illinois: G Tracy Abrams, 6-2, jr.; G Joseph Bertrand, 6-6, sr.; G Rayvonte Rice, 6-4, jr.; F Jon Ekey, 6-7, grad; C Nnanna Egwu, 6-11, jr.; Penn State: G Tim Frazier, 6-1, sr.; G D.J. Newbill, 6-4, jr.; G Graham Woodward, 6-0, fr.; F Donovan Jack, 6-9, so.; F Brandon Taylor, 6-7, so. Scoring leaders -- Illinois: Rice 16.9 points per game; Abrams 11.9, Bertrand 11.0. Penn State: Newbill 17.6, Frazier 16.4, Taylor 9.9. Rebounding leaders -- Illinois: Rice 5.9 rebounds per game, Ekey 5.5, Egwu 5.4, Bertrand 5.1. Penn State: Ross Travis 7.1, Newbill 5.4, Frazier 4.8, Taylor 4.8. Assist leaders -- Illinois: Abrams 3.1 assists per game, Jaylon Tate 2.3, Rice 1.8. Penn State: Frazier 6.1, Newbill 1.9.