Penn State Vs. Illinois: Nittany Lions Host Surging Fighting Illini Squad

Penn State will look to slow down Illinois' red-hot guard, Brandon Paul.

The last time Illinois' Brandon Paul played a Big Ten basketball game, he put forth a dominant effort, scoring 43 points and grabbing eight rebounds to help his Fightin Illini team defeat then-No. 5 Ohio State at Assembly Hall in Champaign on Jan. 10.

On Thursday night at the Bryce Jordan Center, Penn State will look to bring Paul back to Earth when it clashes with his Illinois squad at 9 p.m. The game will be broadcats on ESPN2.

The Illini (15-3, 4-1) have not yet lost in the calender year and have run off three-straight victories following a 75-60 loss at Purdue on Dec. 31. Coach Bruce Weber's squad stands alone atop the Big Ten standings in the loss column and will look to maintain a percentage points lead on 5-2 Michigan, which defeated Penn State at home on Dec. 29.

The Nittany Lions (9-10, 1-5), meanwhile, sit below the .500 mark for the first time all season. They've dropped three-straight, including two at home, to Indiana, Nebraska and Minnesota. The latter of those two are fellow conference cellar-dwellers, owners of a combined two conference wins aside from those against Penn State.

Check out some things to watch for in the game below.

When Penn State has the ball ...

-It's important that Penn State be the aggressor early. Illinois hasn't played a game in nine days and if it suffers from some rust early on the road, the Lions need to take advantage of that by dictating the pace and forcing the Illini to play on their terms.

-Penn State is 10-of-48 from three-point territory in its last two games. That ghastly poor figure suggests it's time to dial back the deep attempts and really focus on some higher percentage shots. If players get some open looks, they shouldn't hesitate to shoot, but against the top team in the conference at the moment, the last thing Penn State can afford is to force shots they've already shown they can't make against solid defense.

-Illinois regularly plays four guards, and Ohio State forwards Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas exploited that lack of size by putting up a combined 44 points when the teams met last week. This game could be an excellent opportunity for Penn State forwards Jonathan Graham and Sasa Borovnjak to have big nights offensively.

When Illinois has the ball ...

-Paul's performance against the Buckeyes was impressive, but it's important Penn State not over-emphasize guarding him. Two other Illinois players, D.J. Richardson and Meyers Leonard, average at least 13 points per game and are just as capable of gashing the Lions' defense. Penn State needs to keep an eye on all of these guys.

-The Lions forced 17 turnovers against Minnesota on Sunday. Similar results would help immensely if the Lions are going to pull and upset as they did last Jan. in defeating then-No. 16 Illinois at the Jordan Center.

Overall

Penn State owns a 2.1 rebound-per-game advantage entering this game, which should help in holding Illinois to a reasonable point total. The big question is whether the Lions can be more efficient on offense and find better shots than they have at times on this losing streak. If they can, then this will be a game despite excellent play from the Illini of late. If Penn State can't, it will sink even further away from .500 and a chance of making the postseason. Expect the latter. Pick: Illinois, 71-60.

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