Illini's third loss to Penn State a real kick in the rear
As Illinois went one-and-done in the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday, it was still tough to tell -- is this a good team in theory or an actual good team?
The Illini have a tall, athletic roster, and produced two of the Big Ten's best nonconference victories, beating current No. 2 UCLA and No. 7 Texas. But they whiffed three times against Penn State.
The 79-76 loss at the United Center was a strange game to watch. For most of the second half, all five Illinois players on the court were taller than all five Penn State players. But the Illini were outplayed, outscored and outrebounded.
And even though Penn State's big men were in foul trouble Thursday, this is the way all three matchups have gone. Nittany Lions coach Micah Shrewsberry has a couple of centers available, but chooses not to use them.
During the postgame news conference, Illinois coach Brad Underwood had a name for Penn State's style of play.
"They go to 'Booty Ball' and it's really, really hard to guard," he said. "When you can keep the possession of the ball for 12, 13 seconds and just keep backing up and you have no recourse in how you guard it, because you can't touch them, it becomes challenging. If you double, he sprays it."
Underwood is talking about Penn State's 6-foot-4 guard Jalen Pickett. Some teams use "point forwards." Pickett was utilized as sort of a post-up point guard. He'd back down a taller player and sometimes try to score, but often kicked it out to waiting 3-point shooters.
"I play a physical game," Pickett said. "I don't know about Booty Ball. I kind of want to change that word, but I play a tough game."
Penn State is sort of a mid-major all-star team of the Northeast. Pickett spent his first three years at Siena. Bucknell transfer Andrew Funk knocked down 6-of-9 3-pointers against the Illini. Drexel transfer Camren Wynter added 18 points.
Underwood's argument that there's no recourse in how to guard Pickett is open to debate. Illinois tried to turn the tables by having 6-10 Coleman Hawkins and 6-9 Dain Dainja post up smaller Penn State defenders. It worked for a while, but Dainja finished the game 4 of 10 from the field and Hawkins was stopped in the post a couple of times late in the game.
The Illini need a better strategy on offense than try to score in the post against a player six inches shorter, because that likely won't happen against any team in the NCAA Tournament. Terrence Shannon Jr. led the Illini with 19 points, while Matthew Mayer had a tough night, hitting 3 of 11 shots.
"There's no secret we're last in the league in 3-point shooting," Underwood said. "We've got to make some 3s."
There's been plenty of turnover at Illinois. Last season's top five scorers moved on, so the team is counting on their three transfers with NCAA experience -- Shannon, Mayer and Dainja -- to generate a run that lasts beyond the first weekend. Mayer obviously has the best history in March, having won a title with Baylor in 2021.
"He's a 23-year-old grown man, a veteran," Underwood said of Mayer. "He's been there and done that before. There's no doubt we need him to be excellent as we move forward. We need him to be a very big part of this.
Had Illinois won Thursday, it would have meant a quarterfinal matchup against No. 2 seed Northwestern and guaranteed a local team in the semis.
But this is how it's gone. Illinois played for the Big Ten tourney title six times in the first 11 years of the event, but just once since 2009. That was when Ayo Dosunmu led the Illini to the championship two years ago.
Plenty of orange-clad fans showed up at the United Center, but if they were looking for signs of an impending NCAA run, there were none. As Underwood said, maybe Penn State is just the wrong matchup for the Illini.
"Give Penn State credit. It was more them than I think it was us," Underwood said. "I'm excited. This (Illini) team can go as long and as far as they want to be. We've proven that."