CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois men's basketball team returns home to battle with Penn State in a game where it will also meet up with the past.
During the game's halftime, the Flyin' Illini will return to the State Farm Center to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the team's run to the Final Four. Coach Lou Henson, assistant coaches Dick Nagy, Jimmy Collins and Mark Coomes and players Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill, Lowell Hamilton, Stephen Bardo, Marcus Liberty, Larry Smith, Ervin Small and P.J. Bowman will be recognized. After the game, there will be an on-court autograph opportunity to with select members of the team.
"I have a long history with coach Nagy. As a kid, he was coach of Newton Community College in Kansas and growing up, junior colleges were a big deal. I the summertime, I attended a camp and he worked there. In 1989, when Illinois was in the Final Four and we were watching the game and rooting for them," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "Back then everyone had a position, but they didn't play that way, they played hard and they played unselfish. Their athleticism was unparalleled at the time. They revolutionized the game and gave people a different way to see the game. They were a fun team to watch and put the program to another level.
"I told our team that every great program has to create a culture and environment where players like that want to go back and know it is home. They want to watch this current team and say that is how we want to play. I want them to sit in the stands and be proud and I told my players that when you come back, the team you ware watching can make you proud as well. Our guys know who they are and to put names with faces and listen to their struggle. They had Bardo and Kendall because of proximity but to have the others come in and talk to them will be great."
For the current Illini, they are coming off a tough 64-58 loss to Wisconsin on Monday, but Underwood saw some positives in the defeat.
"As we broke down the film, it was the first time since I have been here that reminded me of the teams I coached at Stephen F. Austin in terms of our defensive rotation," Underwood said. "We were flying around and being disruptive and part of being disruptive is taking teams our of their rhythm and makes it harder for them to shoot. I thought in the first half, we were really good defensively, there were very few breakdowns.
"We had a chance to get up eight or ten, but it was not a good shooting night for us, especially Trent (Frazier) and Ayo (Dosunmu). But if you told me that we are going to enter the last minute of the game tied with them in Madison, I am going to take those odds. We did some positive things and we have to continue to grow on that."
The Nittany Lions are also a team who had a slow start but are picking up some key wins as of late, including a 75-69 win over Michigan earlier this month and a 95-71 win over Nebraska on Tuesday.
"Penn State is much better than their record. They have one of the best combo forwards in the conference and maybe the nation in (Lamar) Stevens, their freshman guards are playing great and there is a reason they handled Nebraska easily and beat Michigan," Underwood said. They have had a good team that has leadership in (Josh) Reaves, (MIke) Watkins, (Jamari) Wheeler and Stevens and they remember last year, so we will have to play awfully well."
Stevens leads Penn State with 19.5 points per game with eight rebounds per game.
"Stevens does so many things, he has physical size and he can play every position," Underwood said. "He can post up and beat you off the dribble an a terrific rebounder. He's a little different than Ethan Happ, but he does a lot to fill the scoresheet. He is so versatile, he makes the guys around him better."
A game with two teams that have heated up as the season has gone has the potential to have a game that satisfies even the most nostalgic fan that will be in attendance today.
In the Big Ten, I think the one thing that has happened is Rutgers, Penn State, us, we continue to improve and get better. It's a huge compliment to (Penn State head coach Pat Chambers) in keeping that team together," Underwood said. "They have eight or nine freshmen on the team and they are only getting better. They have beaten Virginia Tech and they have had a few single-digit losses and now they have their head up and we have done the same, We play both really, really hard and it will be a gold-old fashioned rock fight."
PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS AT ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
Site — State Farm Center
When — 11 a.m. today
Records — Penn State 10-16 overall, 3-12 in Big Ten Conference. Illinois 10-16 overall, 6-9 in 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 Deon Thomas. Local stations include WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.
Previous Results — Illnois leads the series 28-17, but Penn State has won the last four games, including a 74-52 win Feb. 11, 2018 at Champaign.
Last Games — The Nittany Lions defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers 95-71 on Tuesday, while the Illini lost to the Wisconsin Badgers 64-58 on Monday.
Up Next — Penn State will host the Maryland Terrapins on Wednesday, while Illinois will travel on Wednesday to play the No. 12 Purdue Boilermakers.
Projected Lineups — Penn State: F Lamar Stevens, 6-8, junior; F John Harrar, 6-9, sophomore; G Myles Dread, 6-4, freshman; G Jamari Wheeler, 6-1, sophomore; G Josh Reaves, 6-5, senior. Illinois: G Trent Frazier, 6-1, sophomore; G Ayo Dosunmu, 6-5, freshman; G Da'Monte Williams, 6-3, sophomore; G Aaron Jordan, 6-5, senior; F Giorgi Bezhanshvilli, 6-9, freshman.
Scoring — Penn State: Stevens 19.2, Rasir Bolton 12.5, Reaves 10,0, Dread 8.9. Illinois: Frazier, 14.4, Dosunmu 14.1, Bezhanishvili 12.1, Jordan 8.3
Rebounding — Penn State: Stevens 8.0, Mike Watkins 7.6, Reaves 4.5. Illinois: Bezhanisvili 5.0, Jordan 4.6, Dosunmu 4.1.
Assists — Penn State: Reaves 3.2, Wheeler 2.19, Stevens 2.15. Illinois: Dosunmu 3.2, Frazier 2.7, Feliz 2.0