In a span of three weeks, Illinois has tumbled from No. 5 to No. 18 in the Associated Press poll.
While poll position is relatively irrelevant at this point in the season, the Illini (5-3, 1-1 Big Ten) have put together some other numbers that appear more positive as they prepare to face Penn State (3-2, 0-1) on Wednesday in University Park, Pa.
In Illinois’ five wins — highlighted by a double-digit triumph at Duke and a 27-point blowout of Minnesota — Brad Underwood’s squad has made 37 more free throws than its foes.
But in Illinois’ three losses — away from home against Baylor, Rutgers and Missouri, all currently Top 25 teams — Underwood’s crew has made 28 fewer free throws than its opponents.
Rutgers, for example, outscored the Illini 25-11 at the line during the Scarlet Knights’ 91-88 victory Sunday in Piscataway, N.J. Three Illinois guards fouled out and two more finished with four fouls — and Underwood didn’t blame the officials for the team’s woes.
“It’s becoming a problem of epic concern,” Underwood said. “You’re not going to win on the road with a 21 free-throw (attempt) discrepancy. You can’t commit the fouls that we’re committing. You can’t continually parade a team to the free-throw line.”
While Underwood frets about his backcourt’s overaggressive play and silly fouls, Penn State interim head coach Jim Ferry is just excited his guys get to play again. The Nittany Lions haven’t suited up since taking a 62-58 loss at Michigan on Dec. 13.
Penn State tried to set up another game during the interim — a nonconference home game for Saturday fell apart at the 11th hour due to COVID-related travel concerns — so the Nittany Lions settled for an extensive Saturday scrimmage to stay sharp.
“I think we got a lot out of the guys,” Ferry said. “As much as we could get out of them over finals week.”
Penn State’s time off allowed Ferry and his assistants to scour tape on all eight of Illinois’ games — and Illini fans aren’t going to like Ferry’s answer when asked which previous Illini opponent Penn State resembles most.
“Who would you say we compare to?” Ferry said. “I’d say Missouri a little bit — with the quickness that we have the ability to play with.”
Missouri has upset Illinois each of the past two Decembers with a perimeter-heavy attack. When the Nittany Lions operate at their best, they’re running the floor, attacking the heart of the defense and then kicking the ball to one of their six above-average 3-point shooters. Penn State makes 10.4 3-pointers per game and shoots 37.7 percent from the arc.
Illinois struggled to slow Rutgers’ Jacob Young, Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker and Montez Mathis in a similar setting Sunday. If Illinois can’t solve Penn State’s offense any better, then it will hope 7-footer Kofi Cockburn can make the difference at the other end of the floor.
In Illinois’ past three games, Cockburn has canned 27 of 39 shots (69.2 percent) while averaging 23 points and 10.3 rebounds. Penn State, meanwhile, has just one big man it trusts, and 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior John Harrar gives up three inches and 45 pounds to Cockburn.
“He’s really unique,” Ferry said of Cockburn. “As I’ve been watching the film over the past couple of days, I’m a little bit older than the rest of my staff here, but (Shaquille O’Neal) came to mind. And I’m not talking about the NBA Shaq. I watched Shaq a lot when he was in college and he reminds you of that.
“He’s such a physical presence. He has improved dramatically since last year. He’s so explosive off the floor to finish at the rim. His hands have gotten better.”
–Field Level Media