Penn State has pushed Illinois through every emotion in dealing the Fighting Illini a pair of deflating losses in the regular season.
Illinois (20-11) gets a third crack at the Nittany Lions (19-12) on Thursday in the Big Ten tournament in Chicago.
To advance to the quarterfinals and a matchup with No. 2 seed Northwestern on Friday night, Illinois needs to solve the challenge of Penn State guard Jalen Pickett.
Pickett posted 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists in the Nittany Lions’ 74-59 win in Champaign on Dec. 10, the game that led to fiery Illinois coach Brad Underwood’s viral postgame press conference remembered for his mouth noises and flammable statements about inept player leadership and general day-to-day effort in practice.
For an encore, Pickett had 24 points by halftime and finished with a career-best 41 points with eight assists to help Penn State bury Illinois 93-81 on Feb. 14.
“You’ve got to make his life hard,” Underwood said. “He’s big and strong and loves to just bang and bang and bang, and that gives him a rhythm.”
Illinois is the No. 7 seed after winning the Big Ten regular season title in 2022. The Illini failed to win consecutive games since beating Wisconsin and Nebraska on Feb. 20 and 23, squandering a chance to climb the standings after being locked in a tie for second place in the final week of the season.
Penn State is the No. 10 seed and has won five of six since Pickett’s Valentine’s Day massacre of Illinois in Happy Valley and is focused on crashing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
“I feel like we’re playing our best basketball right now, which is what you want to do,” Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry said. “You don’t want to be limping into the Big Ten tournament. Our guys feel good about themselves. They feel good about how they’re playing.”
Looking ahead, Illinois split with Northwestern this season, each winning at home. Penn State downed the Wildcats at Evanston in the only meeting between the teams this season on March 1, claiming a 68-65 victory in overtime on a Camren Wynter 3-pointer with 0.7 seconds left.
–Field Level Media