A lot riding on Illinois-Penn State game

John Supinie

March Madness is under way for No. 23 Illinois even before the regular-season finale tonight at Penn State.

Regarded as a second-division team in the Big Ten Conference before the season started, Illinois will take one last swing at gaining ground. The Illini would grab the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament with a win over Penn State, but a loss may throw the Illini into a slide at the worst time.

Illinois still could slip to a No. 4 seed in the conference tournament. Even though Illinois is in no jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament, falling down the Big Ten pecking order also would affect the Illini when the NCAA selection committee releases the tournament pairings on March 15. Illinois hasn't lost back-to-back games all season, but a two-game losing streak would kill any momentum heading into postseason.

"Some people have been saying to Chester (Frazier) and me, 'Great career. Great season,''' Illini senior Trent Meacham said. "We're not done yet. It's a big game Thursday. We could make a big jump (in seeding) or drop a few spots.''

Illinois would finish alone in second place with a win over Penn State coupled with a Purdue loss at Big Ten champ Michigan State on Sunday, but Illini coach Bruce Weber knows that a loss at Penn State and a bad showing in the conference tournament may drop the Illini in NCAA seeding.

"It's a big game with a lot riding on it for us,'' Weber said. "For us to get to 24 wins would be a nice accomplishment and let us feel good about ourselves heading into postseason.''

Northwestern's 64-61 win at Purdue on Wednesday created more tiebreaker scenarios. After building a tournament resume over the last four months, Illinois didn't want to waste all that work in the last week. Earning an NCAA bid is the first step. Building a seed is just as important.

"You never want to be a No. 8 or 9 (in the NCAAs),'' Weber said. "It's a pretty good possibility of playing an underachiever that's good at the end of the season. Then you have to play a No. 1 after that. If you're in the top four, you can possibly be close to home. That would be great for the fans and families of the players.''

Illinois' run toward a Big Ten title ended Sunday with the loss to Michigan State. Instead of an exhale, the Illini have a reason to get angry and get even, Weber said.

"I hope there's a little bitterness or a bad taste in their mouths from the Michigan State game,'' Weber said. "We didn’t get it done. We had some chances. That will help us be ready to play. Then you've got the Penn State game, how we failed and the criticism we received after that game. I hope it all adds up to playing good basketball out there.''

When Illinois lost 38-33 to the Nittany Lions on Feb. 18, the Illini set an Assembly Hall record for fewest points in a game. In the process, Illinois also set a Hall record with no free throws attempted in a game. The two teams — and the Big Ten — became the nation's punch line.

"I'm sure there are going to be people cracking jokes and looking to see how many points we score,'' Meacham said.

It won’t be easy tonight. Behind guard Talor Battle and powerful forward Jamelle Cornley, coach Ed DeChellis is turning Penn State into Hoops Valley.

Folks in State College call this the biggest Penn State home game since playing George Washington in 1991 for the Atlantic 10 Conference title two years before Penn State joined the Big Ten.

With two more wins, Penn State could jump to the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. Because experts predict between five and seven teams in the NCAA field from the Big Ten, Penn State entered the week on the bubble with Minnesota and Michigan.

"We control our own deal,'' DeChellis said. "I've tried to emphasize that for the last couple of weeks. If we win games, it will be really hard for some committee to keep us out of the tournament with a good record in the Big Ten and a good record overall.''

Penn State already has a 20-win regular season and its most victories in Big Ten play since 1995-96. Yet an NCAA bid isn't settled.

"There are so many teams bunched in the middle,'' Cornley said. "You can't afford to take a game or two off, or your position in the standings will suffer.''

Illinois knows the feeling.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.

ILLINOIS VS. PENN STATE

No. 23 Illinois (23-7, 11-6) vs. Penn State (20-9, 9-7)

8 p.m., Bryce Jordan Center (15,261), State College, Pa. (ESPN, Illini Radio Network)

ILLINOIS (23-7, 11-6)   ppg     rpg

C Mike Tisdale So. 7-1 10.8 4.0

F Mike Davis So. 6-9 11.1 7.9

G Demetri McCamey So. 6-3 11.8 2.6

G Trent Meacham Sr. 6-2 10.2 2.3

G Chester Frazier Sr. 6-2 5.6 4.9

PENN STATE (20-9, 9-7)

F Jamelle Cornley Sr. 6-5 14.3 6.3

F David Jackson So. 6-6 3.8 3.0

C Andrew Jones So. 6-9 5.7 5.4

G Stanley Pringle Sr. 6-1 12.5 3.0

G Talor Battle So. 5-11 17.0 5.4

Noteworthy: With a 38-33 loss to Penn State on Feb. 18 in Assembly Hall, Illinois lost three of the last four meetings with Penn State. The Illini lead the series 21-10 overall and 21-7 since Penn State joined the Big Ten for the 1992-93 season. … Illinois hasn't lost back-to-back games all season. A victory would give Illinois five conference road wins, the most since the 2004-05 season when the Illini reached the NCAA Tournament championship game. … Against Indiana on Saturday, Penn State played before a sellout for the first time in eight years.

Key for Illini: Make shots. An offense built around jump shooters can't change now.

Key for Nittany Lions: One game at a time. Penn State might need two wins this week to get into the NCAA field.

Key quote: "We're still hungry. We can't win the Big Ten regular-season title. We can still win the Big Ten Tournament title. You can get a run for that. We hae something to play for.'' -- Illinois forward Dominique Keller.

Prediction: Illinois 57, Penn State 55