Follow drummer Scott Richey all night from the State Farm Center:
Brad Underwood doesn’t usually like to discuss the Big Ten title race. The Illinois coach usually says that’s something for us media to speak out on throughout the season, and he’ll just check the league standings at the end of the year and see how things went.
To be fair, as long as Illinois beats Penn State tonight, the Big Ten title hunt will actually stretch into the last 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 some games and you get up for some opponents. We’ve become this team that everyone is excited for. It’s a very tough league to win on the road. Venues are amazing. It’s one of those things, I think you watch and see a lot of really good basketball teams and everybody’s there.
“You all talk about it, and I never care. It’s a bunch of good teams, and in the end, you matter. You have to go and play the games that are ahead of you. I’m really proud of our month You watch our games on the road in February – the toughest, the toughest – and being able to persevere was a good thing and will make us better for March.
Penn State big man John Harrar (that’s HAIR-a…the final “r” is mute) is going to give up three inches and 45 pounds to Kofi Cockburn in tonight’s game. That doesn’t mean Harrar will be outdone. Especially on the boards The great Nittany Lions veteran is the second best rebounder in the Big Ten at 10.2 per game. Only Cockburn averages more rebounds at 10.7 per game.
“He’s one of the best guys in the country early on,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “He sees it and 2 or 3 seconds before the kick goes up he’s trying hard to get under you, brace you, get inside you and position himself. He’s relentless. He plays extremely , extremely hard.
“His role is a bit different. Last year he was on the block all the time. This year he’s playing on the perimeter, but he’s got an amazing drive. Those are the first three words in our scouting report – engine, engine, engine. He just has a relentless mindset in terms of going to the glass.”
Here’s what Brad Underwood had to say about Penn State ahead of tonight’s game:
“We have a very good offensive team at Penn State,” said the Illinois coach. “They’ve got a lot of stuff at five. They’ve got a veteran team. They’ve got a new guard, a transfer, in (Jalen) Pickett who’s played exceptionally well. It’s a big, 6-4, 205-or a 210-pound kid who is very, very efficient in the paint. Obviously, (Sam) Sessoms is a spark plug on the bench. He’s one of the best guys in the league on the bench. A very, very good scorer.
“(Seth) Lundy, (John) Harrar and (Myles) Dread are guys we know very well and very good players. They’re going to play the way they play. very connected.”
Official Podz Jersey Reveal: Regular Home White Jerseys For The #Illinois against Penn State tonight.
— Scott Richey (@srrichey) March 3, 2022
Brad Underwood said he felt his team was “closer” defensively to be able to better handle any offensive droughts that arose. The reason for the Illinois coach’s optimism? The way Kofi Cockburn played in Sunday’s win at Michigan.
Illini’s coach demands more from the 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 focus on defense in the ball screen. He was a wall again. He wasn’t turned sideways in his ball screen coverage. He was talking. It helps us so much. It helps our guards.
The big picture of 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 poised to face the worst-case scenario as a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Not a bad place to be — especially considering everything Illinois has faced this season.
— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniMBB) March 3, 2022
But tonight’s game against Penn State is still kind of in that “must win” category. Mainly because Illinois has a slim chance of claiming a share of the Big Ten title. That puts Nebraska upset by Wisconsin this weekend, but the Cornhuskers have already won back-to-back road games at Penn State and Ohio State leading up to this Sunday showdown in Madison, Wisconsin. As Kevin Garnett once shouted, “Anything is possible.”
Illinois, of course, must win tonight against Penn State to enter Sunday with a chance to share the Big Ten title. Then beat Iowa in the final game of the season.
So, yeah, tonight’s game is still a big deal. And the Illini know it.