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I just scrapped what I had been writing and started over. It's 2:12 am. So I don't know how many words I'll write about this game, but I feel like my opinion of the outcome changed a ton over the last hour. Take one was going in the wrong direction. This is take two.
Here's where I want to start. Did you know that we recently lost six in a row to Penn State? You probably remember that. I didn't remember that. Last year's game, with Ayo hitting that floater in the lane to ice it, was our first win over Penn State since January of 2015, a few weeks after the Heart Of Dallas Bowl. We went from then until last February without beating Penn State.
Here's the losses:
3-6-2016 79-86 (2OT) L University Park
1-28-2017 67-71 L University Park
2-11-2017 70-83 L Champaign
2-11-2018 52-74 L Champaign
2-23-2019 76-83 L Champaign
3-10-2019 56-72 L University Park
Now we've won three straight over Penn State. That's no great accomplishment - last year was a solid win because they were #9 at the time, but this year Penn State only has three wins. Still, I feel like we need to acknowledge the state of the program at this moment. Pull back from the disappointment of our five losses in 15 games and look at the overall.
A 22 point second-half lead that shrunk to 14 at the end felt a little disappointing (I wanted to keep the accelerator down and win by 30), but still, an easy 14-point win over Penn State that felt a little disappointing made me realize, at 2:12 am, that we're no longer where we were. Penn State played a big part in our fall, and hopefully we're beyond those days.
My first game in Orange Crush (with a C at the time) was against Penn State. The way I remember it, we jumped out to a 15-0 lead and then lost by 15. This was a non-conference game because Penn State wasn't in the Big Ten yet, and that was the first game of the Bruce Pearl sanctions era (we were actually decent in 1990/91 even though we were banned from the Tournament but then 1991/92 was a rough go). That season finished 13-15 and I was all "where is the 3-seed-every-year Illini team I was promised?".
Once Penn State did join the Big Ten in 1993, we mostly dominated them on the basketball court. From 1993 to 2005, we were 18-3 against Penn State. There were a couple shocking losses (like 2001), but for the most part, it was chalked up as a win.
(Fun fact that not many people remember: did you know that former Illinois President Stanley Ikenberry is the reason Penn State is in the Big Ten? He had a conversation with Bryce Jordan, the Penn State President at the time, and they decided to open a dialogue. Joe Paterno flew to Champaign under the cover of night and met with Ikenberry secretly to further the discussions. Ikenberry then presented the idea to the other nine Big Ten presidents and by June of 1990 they were voted in. The more you knowww.)
Then came the 2006 loss at home (the one where Rich McBride's game-winning three was still on his fingertips when the buzzer sounded), and then suddenly Penn State was this thorn in our side. We were swept in 2008 and 2009 with only a Big Ten Tournament win in 2008 preventing that from being a five-game losing streak. We lost basically identical games in 2011 and 2012 at Penn State. And then the six game losing streak listed above. 18-3 from 1993 to 2005 - 11-13 from 2006 to 2020. Twenty four games against Penn State (Penn State!) and we won 11 of them. And over those 15 years Penn State only made the NCAA Tournament one time (2011).
So I just feel like it needs to be acknowledged: we've now won three straight, and the two wins this year were by 17 and 14. Neither game was ever in any danger in the second half. And this is a Penn State team that's currently 47th in KenPom (ahead of #51 Maryland). I'm so stuck on "this needs to be a special season!" that I feel like I've missed how far we've come. We're back to "Penn State? Yeah, no problem", and that's a nice place to be.
+ It was interesting how Penn State came out defensively in this game. First possession, they attempt to trap Ayo out top. He passed out of it (to Trent I think), who fed to Kofi, who made the layup and got fouled. Using an extra defender to double-team Ayo out near half court was.. an interesting way to go about it. "Let's give Kofi even more room to operate".
Because they did that several times, Ayo was more of a passer in this game. 5 assists (it felt like he had 8 or 9) and a ho-hum 13 points. Kofi was the main event, putting up 21 and 12 with four blocks, getting fouled 10 times and making 9 of 13 from the free throw line. Penn State was flopping, the refs refused to call it, and so Kofi had his way in the paint. Even had an assist.
+ I don't want to try to make too much of Jacob Grandison starting other than to say that I still feel like Da'Monte Williams is dealing with some kind of injury. He just looks a little different in warmups. "Laboring" isn't the right word, but he's doing things... gingerly up until the game starts. Maybe I'm just seeing things that aren't there, but I feel like he's not 100%.
As it turned out, Grandison was perfect for the zone that Penn State threw at us. In that first half he'd settle in to that high post spot and make great decisions with the ball. As I tweeted during the game, Grandison in the center against a zone is basically Good Kipper in the center against a zone. He can make a team scrap the whole thing and go back to man-to-man just with three consecutive great decisions.
+ My eyes are really heavy so one more plus sign. I was disappointed in the lull in the second half (seven minutes without making a shot), but so was Brad Underwood, and he acted quickly to fix it. I asked him specifically about that in the postgame presser - about a moment where he yanked Curbelo, Giorgi, and Grandison and replaced them with Ayo, Kofi, and Trent. He admitted that yes, he saw some lazy play (a Curbelo turnover, a Giorgi missed assignment on defense), and he quickly scrapped his "we have a 20 point lead let's try some different combinations of players" plan and went back to Ayo, Kofi, and Trent.
And after thinking about that, I was really happy to have a game where that was the case. It feels like it's been 15 years since we had a laugher at home against Penn State, so it was great to have a 22 point lead and be playing the "what if we play Grandison and Hawkins together?" game. Yeah, I wanted a blowout, but I'll take an easy 14-point win.
I'm also very happy that we were able to take two from Penn State this season. Hopefully the start of another "18 of 21" streak.
Editor's note: The original version of this article - published at 3:19 am - was published incorrectly by a very tired author. Because he published it the old way (pre-launch), comments were disabled. This is now published correctly and comments are possible. The tired author regrets the error.