Penn State was clicking to a degree offensively and scored more than 70 points against Michigan on Sunday — the type of performance that has eluded the Nittany Lions for the majority of the year.
However, the Lions went into the game knowing they had to limit the highest-scoring backcourt duo in the Big Ten: Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway.
While Hardaway was quiet with just eight points, the Lions weren’t able to overcome then-No. 4 Michigan primarily because of Burke’s 29 points, many of which came by attacking the hoop.
Penn State will look to pick up its first Big Ten win of the year against Illinois’ lethal backcourt — although its style may differ from Michigan’s — Thursday at 8 p.m. in Champaign, Ill.
The Lions’ approach from last game likely won’t work against Fighting Illini shooting guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson — two of the purest shooters in the conference. Both players rank among the Big Ten’s top eight in 3-pointers.
“Burke’s more of a point guard so he’s driving it more, shooting threes, but really trying to get to the basket. Paul and Richardson are more of spot-up shooters,” Penn State assistant coach Eugene Burroughs said. “They’re not trying to get to the rim and get layups, they’re trying to shoot threes.”
Paul and Richardson — both seniors — have led the Illini in scoring and to a 19-8 record that includes upsets over Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio State, who have each been in the top 25 for the majority of the year.
Despite a 6-7 Big Ten record this season, the Illini started this season on all cylinders in coach John Groce’s first year at the helm. They won 13 of 14 nonconference games, including signature victories against Butler and now-No. 3 ranked Gonzaga.
Paul and Richardson’s shooting prowess have helped lead the Illini to some of their biggest wins — Paul put up 35 points against Gonzaga, the two combined for 44 points against No. 1 Indiana, etc.
On the season, Paul averages 16.4 points per game, and in his last four contests Richardson has averaged 18 points.
“They’re probably two of the best shooting guards in our league from a percentage standpoint and their ability to make shots. It’s going to be difficult because they have two guys who can really score 20-25 points any night,” Burroughs said.
Penn State guard D.J. Newbill said that forcing the duo out of their comfort zone by keeping them from dialing up open shots will be key defensively.
However, Burroughs said the Lions have yet to face a duo of this shooting caliber, making it difficult to prepare and defend.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us because we haven’t faced two guards like Paul and Richardson who can shoot the ball from the outside,” Burroughs said.