When Penn State joined the Big Ten Conference before the 1992-93 season, there were some who said it would be a cold day in hell before it won a basketball title.
Well, there's no knowing what the weather will be on the first weekend in March, but the ninth-ranked Nittany Lions are certainly in contention for their first conference championship. Winners of eight straight games, Penn State tries to keep the roll going Tuesday night when slumping Illinois visits for another Big Ten clash.
The Nittany Lions (20-5, 10-4 Big Ten) trail first-place Maryland by a game with six contests remaining. They are coming off a 77-61 victory Saturday over visiting Northwestern, making them 13-1 at home.
The program that once struggled to fill the lower bowl of Bryce Jordan Center for home games is now selling out the 15,261-seat building. Linebacker U. might not be Ball Reversal U. just yet, but Happy Valley is learning the joys of making the extra pass and rotating perfectly on defense.
"We're trying to do something special, something that Penn State hasn't seen before," Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. "We've been talking about moments since the beginning of the season, and here's another moment for us."
That moment was the quickest 20th win in school history. An experienced core of seniors like Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins, mixed with good complementary players like Myreon Jones and Jamari Wheeler, has helped Penn State play consistently well on both ends.
In the win over Northwestern, Stevens pumped in a game-high 23 points and guard Myles Dread canned four 3-pointers on his way to 16 points. The Nittany Lions finished with 11 3-pointers and won the rebounding battle 42-30.
"It's scary that this team can continue to develop and grow and get better because we do need to start trying at least attempting to put teams away," Chambers said.
While Penn State sets its sights on a conference title, the Fighting Illini (16-9, 8-6) are merely hoping to get well again. Their 72-57 loss at Rutgers on Saturday was their fourth straight defeat, knocking them out of the Top 25 and putting their NCAA Tournament hopes in a bit of doubt.
Illinois is struggling to score, averaging only 64.3 points during their losing streak, and is playing without leading scorer Ayo Dosunmu (knee) after he was hurt at the end of a 70-69 loss Feb. 11 against Michigan State. The sophomore guard was considered day-to-day, coach Brad Underwood said Monday.
Underwood said his team took too many 3-pointers at Rutgers, where it was 8 of 28 from beyond the arc and just 19 of 61 overall.
"We took way too many 3s," he said in the Champaign News-Gazette. "You can't go on the road and shoot 28 3s and expect to win. We forced some late. Their defense, they've got great, great length on the perimeter."
This is the only regular-season meeting between the Nittany Lions and Illini.
--Field Level Media