No. 20 Illinois men’s basketball hosts Penn State in penultimate regular-season game

Fifth-year+senior+guard+DaMonte+Williams+yells+in+celebration+during+Illinois+game+against+Ohio+State+at+State+Farm+Center+on+Feb.24.+The+Illini+welcome+the+Penn+State+Nittany+Lions+to+Champaign+on+Thursday+night.

Cameron Krasucki

Fifth-year senior guard Da’Monte Williams yells in celebration during Illinois’ game against Ohio State at State Farm Center on Feb.24. The Illini welcome the Penn State Nittany Lions to Champaign on Thursday night.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

No. 20 Illinois will play Penn State for the first time this season Thursday night at State Farm Center. The Illini sit in second place in the Big Ten behind the Wisconsin Badgers, who have just one game remaining.

Illinois (20-8, 13-5) alternated wins and losses throughout the month of February, failing on several occasions to take control of the conference lead, but it won enough to stay in the race.

“We don’t play everybody twice,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “That’s unfortunate, so you get an imbalance that way, but you can’t do anything about it. You gotta play the games in front of you. I’m really proud of our February. I mean look at our road games in February, hard ones, and to be able to persevere through that was good stuff. It’ll make us better for March.”

Underwood’s squad won five of eight games in the month of February, with losses coming against ranked Purdue and Ohio State teams, as well as a Rutgers team that had won five straight prior to their meeting.

With Penn State (12-14, 7-11), the Illini will get a much-needed break. The Nittany Lions have won a single away game this season, which came against a struggling Northwestern squad. Penn State is led by senior transfer guard Jalen Pickett and fifth-year senior forward John Harrar.

Harrar is averaging a double-double with points and rebounds in his fifth year with the team and his second as a full-time starter. His 10.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game are both career-highs.

“He’s one of the best guys in the nation at an early wedge,” Underwood said. “ Two seconds, three seconds before the shot goes up, he’s working on getting inside you and getting position. He’s got an unbelievable motor. It’s the first three words on our scouting report: motor, motor, motor.”

Illinois will be without one of its better rebounders in redshirt sophomore forward Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, who remains in concussion protocols since taking a hit at Michigan State. Freshman guard RJ Melendez will also likely miss Thursday’s matchup, out with appendicitis. Both have begun practicing but are not ready to play.

These two absences only add to the list of unusual injuries the Illini have suffered this season. 

Underwood said he expects Penn State to run a lot of five-out sets and attempt to slow the pace. The Nittany Lions average just 65 points per game, compared to 77 for the Illini.

“We’ve had an interesting year. We’ve had a trying year. We’ve had a growing year,” Underwood said. “It hasn’t been easy, and yet we’re right where we need to be, and March is here, and we control everything that we can control.”

 

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