Praised and Healed, First Place Illini Look To Stay There At Penn State
Illinois chose one hell of a week to have a bye. At game time right before the Ohio State game, we had a two team race for the Big Ten title, where everyone assumed it would be decided between one loss OSU and yet to lose Michigan State, with Indiana and Michigan waiting in the wings. Since then, to say the least some movement has occurred. In the past week, all of those top four teams lost, with MSU and Indiana both losing twice. While Illinois had been fortunate enough to get a one point road win in Evanston and a home double overtime W against Minnesota, the Spartans and Hoosiers failed such tests.
Illinois was not part of the blood bath by the fortune of the schedule and has been rewarded with sole possession of first place in the toughest league in America. Yeah I suppose I will take that.
If the big victory against the Buckeyes didn't give us a boost of confidence, the context of the rest of the league certainly must have. Instead of bemoaning close wins against basement dwellers Nebraska, Minnesota, and Northwestern, I am applauding them, because by God they were wins. The fact that we went 3-0 without Sam Maniscalco and with D.J Richardson's shooting hand injured is just what Bruce Weber said it was: a thing of beauty.
Now we have DJ back to full strength, and Sam Maniscalco back to being able to go 15-20 minutes a game. In a nutshell, we don't need Brandon Paul to chuck 14 shots from distance in order to have a three point threat, not that that will stop him.
Illinois enters its road trip to Penn State after a long rest, a big win, and the knowledge of knowing that the greatest player in the history of Penn State basketball will not be lacing them up. Basically, there is every chance we could lose this game.
I said we could. Not that we would. Yes, Penn State is the worst team, statistically, by record, and by talent in the Big Ten, but that didn't stop them from pasting Purdue by 20 did it? Talor Battle wont be there, but the team still plays tough defense and Tim Frazier put up 21 points on the Hoosiers in a very close match. This is still the Big Ten people, and this could very easily go down like Iowa over Michigan last Saturday.
Turnovers still cost you, no matter the opponent, because even terrible shooters can get two points on a breakaway lay up. Likewise they can score when they are left open from bad defense. Illinois doesn't lose this game if they play up to their potential, but that is a very important IF.
Penn State should not have an answer, whatsoever, for Meyers Leonard, which in all likelihood means we will see the return of the double and triple teams. That will open up, or at least it should open things up for Brandon Paul and Joe Bertrand to get open looks or open lanes to the basket.
D.J. Richardson's hand is apparently healed. Likewise is Maniscalco's ankle. Having one or both of them on the floor at the same time should give the Illini enough of a threat from three to at least play Meyers somewhat honestly. And don't forget about Myke Henry, if there is one thing you can say for a kid, its that he can shoot.
Having Sam on the floor again will relieve some stress in the half court offense. At the very least he knows where everyone is supposed to be, and hopefully wont miss Meyers on the pick and roll, or when he is open on the block.
With Tracy on the floor though, I think this team should try and run a little, get there with more aggressive defense. BP DJ and Tracy make for very quick defenders at guard, and if they can over play some passes and get a few steals, each of them is capable of getting points in transition.
I feel good about this team, and going forward I think I will feel even better. At the very least I have settled in for a long and exciting Big Ten season.
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