The No. 22-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini (15-3, 4-1) are still riding high from their victory on January 10th over the then No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes. Illinois has not played a game since that day, but much has happened during their eight-day break heading into Thursday's road matchup against the Penn State Nittany Lions (9-10, 1-5). The Illini currently sit atop the Big Ten conference standings, so now it will be interesting to see how Meyers Leonard and company handle things as the front-runner.
This is a big game for Penn State, as the home game is their only guaranteed appearance on the ESPN network (excluding ESPN U). They will debut new alternate gray uniforms, and will no doubt be eyeing an upset. Meyers Leonard should have a nice game against a soft interior defense, but the emerging storyline for the Illini comes via Joe Bertrand. Black Shoes Diary explains:
Bertrand has been huge for Illinois in conference play. The 6'5" sophomore has had an amazing in-season turn around. In the first 12 games, Bertrand averaged just 3.2 PPG in 11.4 MPG, but in their last 6, he's exploded for 14.2 PPG in 30.2 MPG. He tore up Missouri and Nebraska for 19 and 25, respectively on near perfect shooting (20-21 in both games combined). He's shooting 72% in this 6 game turnaround, all of which have come from inside the arc.
The game stacks up well for the Illini, but nothing is ever easy in Big Ten play. The staff at Hail to the Orange is still worried the Nittany Lions are going to be dangerous in their biggest home game of the year:
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.
Game date, time: 8:00 p.m. CT, Thursday, January 19th, 2012
Location: Bryce Jordan Center, University Park, PA
Radio: Illini Sports Network, AM 560
Spread: Illini are currently favored by 3-3.5 points. Over/under is currently set at 124.5 points.
For more coverage of the Illini, be sure to explore Hail to the Orange. Stay tuned to SB Nation Chicago for live, in-game scores and updates. News and analysis on the Nittany Lions is available at Black Shoes Diary.