Weber: Penn State game a have-to-win

Trevor Greene The Daily Illini Illinois Chester Frazier plays defense during the game against Northwestern on Thursday, Feb. 12. Illinois won the game 60-59 with a last second shot.

Trevor Greene The Daily Illini Illinois’ Chester Frazier plays defense during the game against Northwestern on Thursday, Feb. 12. Illinois won the game 60-59 with a last second shot.

By Jeremy Werner

Illinois head coach Bruce Weber had labeled last week’s road games against Northwestern and Indiana as the “most important” matchups of the season.

After winning back-to-back road games for the first time since March 2006, Weber has transferred that have-to-win label to Wednesday’s home matchup with Penn State.

“I told them, ‘If you keep winning each game, then that next one becomes the most important of the year,'” Weber said. “And that’s very true right now.”

Illinois has solidified itself in the polls and, barring a total collapse, the No. 18 Illini (21-5, 9-4 Big Ten) are a solid bet to receive an NCAA Tournament bid.

Weber said a top-four or top-five seed are “within reason.” But with five games remaining against four opponents who all are in contention for NCAA Tournament bids, the Illini coach warned, “There’s still a long way to go and a lot of games left.”

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The Illini carry a 10-game home-court winning streak, the longest in the Big Ten, into the Assembly Hall on Wednesday. But the Nittany Lions (18-8, 7-6) have won two consecutive games in Champaign and already have a marquee road victory over first-place Michigan State.

“They’re fighting for their lives to hang in the Big Ten race and get an NCAA bid,” Weber said.

Illinois’ defense will focus on shutting down sophomore Talor Battle, the Big Ten’s scoring leader (17.6 points per game), and senior Jamelle Cornley, who averages 14.9 points and 6.5 rebounds.

“They’re going to make some tough shots,” Illinois senior guard Trent Meacham said. “They’re both really talented. We just have to make it tough on them. We can’t give them any easy looks.”

Chester Frazier – Weber said he would be “shocked” if the senior guard does not win the conference Defensive Player of the Year award – will defend Battle.

Frazier has held some of the conference’s top scorers to well below their season averages. He limited Northwestern’s Craig Moore to eight points on Thursday, seven points below his season average.

But Weber said Cornley, at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, is likely the toughest matchup for the Illini in the interior. The senior forward had 18 points and 12 rebounds in the Nittany Lions’ 68-64 victory at the Assembly Hall last season.

Senior guard Stanley Pringle (13.2 points) is the only other Penn State player to average more than 5.5 points.

“I think that’s a big key with all three of those guys (Battle, Cornley and Pringle), keep them under their average which is a lot easier said than done,” Weber said.

“And we also have to try to keep some other guys from having a career day or a career rebound day.”

Through 26 games, the Illini look to be in prime position to make a run at a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. But that can change drastically in the five games remaining. The Illinois coaches have made sure their players know it.

“Being a three-seed or a four-seed, that’s huge to get to the next round,” Illinois sophomore Mike Davis said.

“But we’re not looking ahead that far. We just have to take it one game at a time. Penn State’s a good team, so we can’t look past them.”