Illinois coach Bruce Weber believes an eight-day break after what was arguably his team's biggest victory of the season should be beneficial.
The Big Ten-leading Illini have moved back into the rankings at No. 22 and will resume play Thursday night when they visit Penn State.Illinois (15-3, 4-1) has not played since a 79-74 home win over then-No. 5 Ohio State on Jan. 10. Brandon Paul turned in the program's third-highest scoring effort with 43 points as the Illini shot a season-high 60.0 percent."If anything, it helped us come back down to Earth a little bit because we were flying pretty high," said Weber about the layoff. "That was a huge win for us. Obviously Brandon to have a once-in-a-lifetime performance, he was feeling it."Every other Big Ten team has at least two conference losses while the Illini will enter Thursday having played the fewest league games. Although Penn State (9-10, 1-5) is one of the Big Ten's worst teams, Weber is wary of this trip after watching then-No. 13 Michigan lose at Iowa and then-No. 6 Michigan State fall at Northwestern on Saturday."Nothing is easy as you saw in the Big Ten this weekend," Weber said. "We have to go to Penn State, where coach (Pat Chambers) has done a great job of getting his kids to play as hard as anybody in the league and they've already gave a lot of people games and beat Purdue by 20 after we had lost to Purdue by 20."The Illini, who fell out of the Top 25 after a 78-74 loss to then-No. 9 Missouri on Dec. 22, have dropped three of their last four visits to Happy Valley.They will be healthier this time since Sam Maniscalco, who has started 13 games, is expected to return after missing three contests with a sore ankle. The Illini went 3-0 without him with freshman Tracy Abrams re-entering the lineup."I guess our goal would be to have (Maniscalco) for 10 to 15 minutes, kind of like we did earlier in the season," Weber said of the senior guard, who's averaging 9.9 points.Illinois will be focusing on slowing down Penn State star Tim Frazier, who is averaging 18.2 points and a conference-leading 6.6 assists. Frazier has scored at least 20 in a Big Ten-best nine games, and he's averaging 23.7 during the Nittany Lions' three-game skid."His confidence is very high," Penn State associate head coach Eugene Burroughs said. "We need him to go out and score points and get guys involved and he's really accepted that leadership role. So we're really excited about his progress."Frazier and Paul are juniors who have shown drastic improvement with career-best scoring averages, with Paul at 13.8. Neither has been much of a factor in four career meetings in this series, with Frazier totaling 16 points and Paul 22.Another player who has shown major improvement is Illinois center Meyers Leonard, who logged a total of five minutes as a freshman in two games against Penn State. Leonard leads the conference with 2.1 blocks per game and is second with a 59.9 shooting percentage.