Penn State hopes win will lead to Big Dance

The last time Illinois and Penn State met on the basketball court, the Big Ten foes’ offensive struggles became the butt of jokes in the national media. The Nittany Lions’ 38-33 win at the Assembly Hall on Feb. 18, the lowest scoring Division-I game since December 2005, also served as damning evidence for critics of the Big Ten’s low-scoring brand of play.

The Illini and Nittany Lions will have a chance to salvage their reputations in Thursday night’s rematch.

“I’m sure there’s going to be people cracking jokes and looking to see how many points we score,” Illinois senior Trent Meacham said. “I’m sure we’ll both top what we had last time, hopefully.”

Though Illinois’ regular season conference title hopes were erased following a loss to Michigan State on Sunday, the Illini still have plenty to play for in their regular season finale.

“We’re playing for second place now,” sophomore Mike Davis said.

Illinois (23-7, 11-6 Big Ten) has won three straight on the road and can clinch the No. 2 seed in next week’s Big Ten Tournament with a win against Penn State.

“We need a real sense of urgency,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. “It is a big game. There is a lot riding on it for us.”

Another quality road win could also boost the Illini’s seeding in the NCAA Tournament. In his most recent projection, ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi places Illinois as a No. 4 seed playing in Boise, Idaho.

Weber emphasized the benefits of gaining a high seed: a less challenging first-round matchup and a favorable travel itinerary.

“If you’re a top-four (seed), you can possibly be close to home,” Weber said. “It’s great for fans. It’s good for your families of the players. We had the unbelievable run in 2005 going through (Indianapolis), Chicago and St. Louis. That was a major advantage. (Distance) is a factor.”

But Thursday’s matchup is even more crucial for Penn State. The Nittany Lions (20-9, 9-7) are one of the “Last Four In” in Lunardi’s current NCAA Tournament projection.

“It’s going to be a tough game, a hard fought game,” Meacham said. “They’re a good team, and they’re battling for an NCAA berth.”

Penn State has won three of its last four meetings with the Illini. Nittany Lions guard Talor Battle, a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate, led all scorers in the Feb. 18 clunker with 11 points.

Battle (17.0 ppg) and teammate Stanley Pringle (12.5) aren’t afraid to pull the trigger from well beyond the 3-point arc.

“They can shoot from anywhere,” Davis said. “They shoot so deep.”

Weber said Davis and 7-foot-1 sophomore Mike Tisdale should have an advantage in the paint over Penn State’s smaller post players. But 6-foot-5, 240-pound senior Jamelle Cornley (14.3 points and 6.3 rebounds) gives the Nittany Lions toughness in the middle.

Though he waved goodbye to the hometown fans on Sunday, Meacham said he and the Illini have plenty left to accomplish this season, starting with claiming a victory at Penn State.

“We got to bounce back,” Meacham said. “It’s a big game … We got a lot of basketball left. Some people are saying to me and Chester (Frazier), ‘Great career’ or ‘Great season.’ But we’re not done yet.”