Illini 10th seed in Big Ten tourney

By Jason Grodsky

The third time is a charm. At least that is what Bruce Weber and the Illinois basketball team are hoping as they prepare for their opening round game of the Big Ten Tournament against Penn State on Thursday.

In the two previous meetings against Penn State this season, Illinois opened up early leads only to watch the Nittany Lions chip away and prevail in the end.

The Illini had never lost consecutive games to Penn State until this year, and this time around the Illini are hoping that if they get an early lead they can maintain it.

“In our two games with them this year it basically came down to the last possession and it went their way,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. “People say it’s tough to beat somebody three times, so it could be an advantage for us.”

The Illini enter the tournament as the No. 10 seed, while the Nittany Lions are seventh. Both teams are coming off emotional wins in their final games of the regular season, and both will need to win the tournament to receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

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Penn State (15-15, 7-11 Big Ten) shocked the conference Sunday, pulling out an overtime victory against No. 22 Indiana at home. Illinois (13-18, 5-13) gutted out a victory Saturday against Minnesota to send seniors Brian Randle, Shaun Pruitt and Chris Hicks out with a win in their final game at Assembly Hall.

“(The Minnesota) win will bring us a lot closer together as a team,” Pruitt said.

“We ended on a positive note, and we’re all motivated to keep this going as far as possible, and hopefully we can take that momentum into the tournament.”

Last season, Illinois and Penn State met in the opening round Big Ten Tournament, but the roles were reversed. The Illini entered as the higher seed and bounced the Nittany Lions from the tournament with a 66-60 win in the two programs’ only meeting in postseason play.

For the Illini to have a repeat performance against the Nittany Lions in this year’s tournament, they’re going to have to attack the boards hard.

Penn State dominated Illinois 49-24 on the glass in its 68-64 win against the Illini at Assembly Hall in early January. In that game, the Illini were out-rebounded 22-7 on the offensive side of the ball, leading Penn State to outscore Illinois 20-5 in second chance points.

The Illini bounced back to out-rebound Penn State 33-25 in their next meeting in Happy Valley but allowed the Nittany Lions to shoot 42.1 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range.

This time around, Penn State will be without senior Geary Claxton and junior Jamelle Cornley, both of whom underwent season-ending knee surgeries. But Weber said the Nittany Lions are still a tough opponent even without those two on the floor.

“Their other players have taken advantage of their opportunities and have been playing free and loose,” Weber said. “(Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis) has done a great job with those guys and keeping their heads above the water.”

Illinois will have a boost on defense to help defend the Nittany Lions. Junior guard Chester Frazier, who has been battling a knee injury most of the conference season, was forced to sit out the end of Illinois’ game versus Minnesota but will be back on the court against Penn State.

If Frazier and the Illini can escape the first round, they will meet Weber’s former assistant Matt Painter and his two-seeded Purdue squad in the second round on Friday at 5:30 p.m.