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Illinois basketball preview: Penn State

First, some good news:

Returns for Aaron Cosby (eye) AND Rayvonte Rice (hand) were not ruled out by John Groce in his press conference this week. Which means there is a chance the injured duo could see some minutes against Penn State on Saturday.

The most recent SB Nation mock bracket for the NCAA Tourney has Illinois as a play-in game. The author, Chris Dobbertean, more specifically cites Illinois’s chance of making the field of 68 as decent.

Illinois is still around, mostly due to the strength of wins over Maryland and Baylor, along with a lack of losses to teams outside of the RPI Top 100.

So, that’s the good news.

In reality, Groce not ruling out Cos and Ray could just be mindgames forcing PSU to prepare for the duo to be on the floor. And NCAA Tourney bracket projections, especially in January, are pretty much a crapshoot.

The Nittany Lions are coming to Champaign with a two-game win streak going, beating Rutgers and Minnesota (who beat Illinois) in recent games. Star guard D.J. Newbill has improved his points per game to 21.5 in that span and looks dangerous as all hell.

Beyond Newbill, though PSU lacks starpower. There are several good contributors on the roster, but none averaging double-digit scoring. Which explains why Penn State only has two total conference wins after a two-game win streak.

Getting one of Cosby or Rice back this weekend would be a big boost for Illinois, in terms of minutes and emotions. If one of them could return it would help out a lot and give the team desperately needed confidence. If both return, I’d say easy win for Illinois. I’m not sold on either happening, though, so it’s going to be another close one.

My prediction: Illinois 68 — Penn State 63

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