The Big Ten’s reputation as a conference that prides itself on tightly contested, defensive battles has been around for a while, but what Illinois and Penn State provided in their first meeting this season went well beyond the league’s low-scoring stigma.
After combining for the fewest points in a Division I game in more than three years last month in Champaign, the No. 23 Fighting Illini and Nittany Lions will both hope for a better offensive showing Thursday night in University Park in a key conference showdown.
Penn State (20-9, 9-7) and Illinois (23-7, 11-6) are sixth and seventh, respectively, in scoring in the Big Ten, which is well on its way to its seventh consecutive season of being the lowest-scoring major conference in the nation.
That defensive nature was taken to the extreme Feb. 18 at Assembly Hall, where the Nittany Lions won for the third straight time despite shooting a season-low 28.3 percent. Illinois shot 30.0 percent in a 38-33 loss, becoming the first team to not attempt a free throw at the 46-year-old venue.
It was the lowest-scoring game in Division I since Monmouth beat Princeton 41-21 on Dec. 14, 2005.
“(James) Naismith probably rolled over several times,” Penn State coach Ed DeChellis said in reference to basketball’s founding father.
Illinois’ point total was its lowest since a 33-31 loss to Minnesota in 1947.
“I think we thought we’d get it going and it never got going,” said guard Trent Meacham, who had a team high-tying seven points. “It was just a long night, from beginning to end.”
The Illini have clinched a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament, and with 23 wins - including a victory over No. 15 Missouri and a season sweep of No. 19 Purdue - their place in the NCAA tournament has been secure for weeks.
A dreadful non-conference schedule has Penn State firmly on the NCAA fence despite victories over the league’s top three teams - No. 8 Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois.
A season sweep of the Illini could do wonders for the Nittany Lions’ chances, and a win Thursday combined with another victory Saturday at Iowa could be especially big. If the Nittany Lions win out, they can earn the third seed in next week’s Big Ten tournament, while Illinois could fall to fifth.
The Illini still had a chance at a share of the regular-season conference title heading into Sunday’s game against the Spartans, but were doomed by 17 turnovers in a 74-66 home loss.
“We had opportunities,” guard Chester Frazier said. “We had a lot of chances to tie, and take the lead. But the ball bounces that way sometimes and they played great defense and took advantage.”
Penn State narrowly survived what would have been a devastating blow to its NCAA hopes Saturday. Talor Battle, the conference’s second-leading scorer at 17.0 points per game, had 16 and eight rebounds in a 61-58 home win over last-place Indiana.
“We’ve got a lot of things to improve on but we’re happy to just walk out of here with a win,” Battle said.
The Nittany Lions are 10-0 when Battle scores 21 or more and 0-5 when he has 10 or fewer.
Illinois could use more out of Demetri McCamey, its leading scorer at 11.8 points per game. The sophomore guard is averaging 8.4 points on 31.8 percent shooting over his last five games.
McCamey had five points in the loss to Penn State last month and six in the Illini’s last trip to University Park, a 52-51 defeat Feb. 16, 2008.