Follow along with beat writer Scott Richey all night from State Farm Center:
Brad Underwood mostly doesn’t like to discuss the Big Ten title race. The Illinois coach usually says that’s something for us media types to opine about throughout the season, and he’ll just check the league standings at the end of the year and see how things shook out.
To be fair, as long as Illinois beats Penn State tonight, the Big Ten title hunt will, in fact, extend to the final day of the regular season.
“That’s why it’s the best league in the country,” Underwood said. “It’s a 20-game grind. You get up for certain games and get up for certain opponents. We’ve become that team that everybody gets excited for. This is a very difficult league to go win on the road. The venues are incredible. It’s one of those things I think you look and see a lot of really good basketball teams and everybody’s right there.
“You guys all talk about it, and I never worry about it. It’s a bunch of good teams, and at the end you count it up. You’ve got to go play the games that are in front of you. I’m really proud of our February. You look at our road games in February — hard ones, hard ones — and to be able to persevere through that was good stuff and will make us better for March.”
Penn State big man John Harrar (that’s HAIR-a … the final “r” is silent) is going to give up three inches and 45 pounds to Kofi Cockburn in tonight’s post matchup. That doesn’t mean Harrar will be overmatched. Particularly on the boards The Nittany Lions’ veteran big is the Big Ten’s second-leading rebounder at 10.2 per game. Only Cockburn is averaging more rebounds at 10.7 per game.
“He’s one of the best guys in the country at an early wedge,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “He sees it and 2 seconds or 3 seconds before the shot goes up, he’s working on getting underneath you and wedging you out and getting inside you and getting position.. He’s relentless. He plays extremely, extremely hard.
“His role is a little different. Last year he was on the block all the time. This year he’s playing out on the perimeter, but he’s got an unbelievable motor. It’s the first three words on our scouting report — motor, motor, motor. He’s just got a relentless mindset in terms of going to the glass.”
Here’s what Brad Underwood had to say about Penn State heading into tonight’s game:
“We get a very good offensive team in Penn State,” the Illinois coach said. “They run a lot of five out stuff. They’ve got a veteran team. They’ve got a new guard, a transfer, in (Jalen) Pickett that has played exceptionally well. He’s a big, 6-4, 205- or 210-pound kid that’s very, very effective in the paint. Obviously, (Sam) Sessoms is a spark plug off the bench. He’s one of the top guys in the league off the bench. A very, very good scorer.
“(Seth) Lundy, (John) Harrar and (Myles) Dread are guys we’re very familiar with and very good players. They’re going to play the way they play. They play with a pretty slow pace. We’ve got to be very, very dialed in.”
Offical Podz Jersey Reveal: Regular home white jerseys for the #Illini against Penn State tonight.
— Scott Richey (@srrichey) March 3, 2022
Brad Underwood said he felt like his team was “closer” defensively to be able to better handle any offensive scoring droughts that pop up. The reason for the Illinois coach’s optimism? The way Kofi Cockburn played in Sunday’s win at Michigan.
Illini coach demanding more from All-American center and vice versa
“Kofi gives me a lot of hope there,” Underwood said. “The other night was the best defensive game he’s played all year. Kofi’s attention to defense in the ball screen. He was a wall again. He wasn’t getting turned sideways in his ball screen coverage. He was talking. That helps us so much. It helps out our guards.”
The big picture of the Illinois basketball season won’t change much regardless of the outcome of tonight’s game against Penn State. The 20-win Illini are already guaranteed a double bye in the Big Ten tournament and are on pace for, worst case scenario, like a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Not a bad place to be — especially considering all Illinois had to deal with this season.
🗣 𝐆𝐚𝐦𝐞 𝐃𝐚𝐲!🏀 vs. Penn State🕕 6:00 PM CT📺 FS1#Illini | #EveryDayGuys pic.twitter.com/XaxtsKTywf
— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniMBB) March 3, 2022
But tonight’s game against Penn State is still kind of in that “must win” category. Mostly because Illinois has a chance, slim as it might be, to claim a share of the Big Ten title. That’s banking on a Nebraska upset of Wisconsin this weekend, but the Cornhuskers have already won consecutive road games at Penn State and Ohio State leading into that Sunday showdown in Madison, Wis. As Kevin Garnett once screamed, “Anything is possible.”
Illinois, of course, has to win tonight against Penn State to go into Sunday with a chance at sharing the Big Ten title. Then beat Iowa in the final game of the season.
So, yeah, tonight’s game is still kind of a big deal. And the Illini know it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism