CHAMPAIGN — No one disputes that Penn State is and always will be a football school.
But thanks to a roster transformation brought about by coach Pat Chambers’ ability to recruit Philadelphia, the Nittany Lions are finally making some noise on the basketball court.
Penn State, winner of four of its last five, has played itself onto the NCAA Tournament bubble and comes to the State Farm Center on Sunday viewing the game with Illinois as a “must win” opportunity.
Illinois, on the other hand, is coming off a loss to Wisconsin during which it had no answer for the Badgers' big man, Ethan Happ.
Illini coach Brad Underwood sees Penn State as a potentially more difficult obstacle and he didn’t dispute remarks by Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, who recently lost to Penn State and said he feels that the Nittany Lions now have three future pros — 6-5 guard Tony Carr and inside players Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens.
Watkins and Carr were both recruited from the talent-rich Philadelphia high school scene.
“When you dive into them I really like their parts,” Underwood said Saturday. “They have an elite guard in Carr, who might arguably be the best point guard in the league. He’s big and he’s No. 2 in (Big Ten) scoring.”
Carr is averaging 19.3 points, Stevens checks in at 15.7 and Watkins at 13.0 points and 9.7 rebounds.
“I love the Watkins kid inside,” Underwood said. “He’s like Inspector Gadget — long arms, goes for every rebound and clogs the paint. We’ll have to sit down and guard better than we did the other night.”
Led by Watkins, Penn State is also an outstanding shot-blocking team with 143. Watkins has 65 on his own. Illinois, on the other hand, has just 54 blocked shots as a team.
If Penn State has a weakness, it’s a lack of depth. Chambers makes very little use of his bench and foul trouble among his starting five can create problems.
Underwood would like to help create those problems.
“They play five guys a lot of minutes,” he said. “One thing we’ve done throughout the year, we foul too much, but we also put a lot of fouls on our opponents. That can impact the game when you don’t have a lot of depth.
“We have to do our part and stay aggressive and offensive rebound. If we can get fouls on those guys it’s a positive.”
Illinois also hopes to continue riding the hot hand of freshman guard Trent Frazier.
Frazier started slow, especially with his 3-point shot, but has been rolling lately.
After making just 4 of his first 31 3-point shots, he has connected on 39 of his last 93 (.419). He made seven 3-pointers while scoring 32 points Thursday against Wisconsin.
“Trent had to go through the process of learning how to play,” Underwood said. “His basketball IQ is really high and that expedites his learning curve. It was a matter of him getting a feel for the game and you throw his cockiness in with that and you have a guy who is starting to see his potential.”
“He can do some things that not a lot of people can. The thing that’s exciting is that he has another level or two he can go to. He will improve as he gets stronger and adds a floater to his game.”
Underwood said sophomore starter Kipper Nichols, whose minutes were limited against Wisconsin due to a sinus condition, is feeling better. “He’s back,” Underwood said.