Illinois is again playing well at Assembly Hall. That’s encouraging with Penn State coming to town.
On Wednesday night, the No. 18 Illini look for an 11th straight victory on their home floor while trying to prevent a third consecutive loss there to the Nittany Lions in this Big Ten contest.
Illinois (21-5, 9-4) returns home after beating Indiana 65-52 on Sunday for its third straight victory. A win in this contest would move the Illini within one-half game of Big Ten-leader and sixth-ranked Michigan State, which lost 72-54 at No. 19 Purdue on Tuesday.
A big reason for Illinois’ turnaround from last season’s 16-19 mark has been its play at home. The Illini are 13-1 at Assembly Hall, where they went 7-8 in 2007-08 - posting one more total loss than the previous eight seasons at home.
“We went through some struggles last year as a program, and just every day to come to work and get those guys to play, get them to believe,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said of the lessons learned during that tough season.
While Illinois hasn’t lost in Champaign since a 76-74 defeat to Clemson on Dec. 2, it’s struggled against Penn State there of late. The Nittany Lions (18-8, 7-6) - looking to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001 - have won two in a row at Assembly Hall, including a 68-64 victory on Jan. 6, 2008.
Penn State has never won three in a row on a Big Ten opponent’s home floor since joining the conference in 1993.
The Nittany Lions won both regular season games last season, before Illinois’ 64-63 victory in the Big Ten tournament. All three contests were decided by a combined six points.
Despite the Nittany Lions recent success at Illinois, the Illini could be in good shape to extend their current overall home winning streak. Penn State has lost two straight on the road since winning 72-68 at Michigan State on Feb. 1, while Illinois has defended its home court well in Big Ten play.
In six league home victories, the Illini are holding opponents to 50.7 points - almost six fewer than their 56.4 league-leading season average - and 36.6 percent shooting.
Among the conference leaders shooting 46.6 percent, Illinois shot 63 percent in the first half against Indiana. Despite leading by 21, though, the Illini allowed the Hoosiers to get within six in the second half before pulling away.
“We kind of relaxed, we didn’t take a lot of shots we usually take,” said Illinois sophomore Mike Davis, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds for his third double-double in four games. “We took their punch and we won the game.”
Mike Tisdale also added 16 points for the Illini, who haven’t won four straight Big Ten games since Jan. 21-31, 2006.
The 6-foot-9 Davis is averaging 13.5 points and 10.7 rebounds in his last four contests.
Illinois gets its first look this season at Big Ten-scoring leader Talor Battle. Averaging 17.6 points, the sophomore scored 21 in Penn State’s 68-63 win over Minnesota on Saturday to snap a three-game losing streak.
“I thought it was very, very important for our psyche and our confidence,” Penn State coach Ed DeChellis said of the win.
Battle, who averaged 13.3 points on just 32.4 percent shooting against the Illini last season, rebounded over the weekend after scoring 19 total points in his previous three games, which included being held scoreless in a 61-47 loss at Purdue last Wednesday.