UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - As the grind of the Big Ten slate continues to roll along, the Nittany Lions will leave the comfort of Happy Valley to hit the road for four of its final six regular season league outings.
The Nittany Lions (13-12, 5-7) kick off the stretch traveling to Illinois to meet the Fighting Illini (14-11, 4-8) for the second time this season Saturday.
Approaching the midway point in the month of February, both Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers and the Nittany Lions have all expressed the all-too-familiar physical and mental challenges surrounding the rigors of the conference schedule.
As Chambers noted Friday afternoon though, heading into the final six games of the regular season, meaningful contributions from the Penn State bench will be huge.
In the last five games, Penn State's bench has is averaging 21.2 points per game, compared to its opponents, who are averaging fewer than 14 points per game from the bench.
Within that same five-game stretch, Penn State's bench logged a Big Ten-high 29 points in the home win against Illinois, contributing at least 20 points per game in three of the five games.
As foul trouble threatened the Nittany Lions in Tuesday's 70-64 win against No. 21/22 Maryland, freshman Nazeer Bostick stepped up late with a standout series featuring an offensive board, put back and a block on the other end to finish with four points. He wasn't the only one though.
Julian Moore, who had started the previous four games, also came off the bench against the Terps to finish with nine points, including a 5-for-6 showing from the free throw line, sinking a pair at the the 12:52 mark of the first half to put Penn State ahead for good.
"I think we have a really deep bench and coaches who trust in a lot of players," freshman Lamar Stevens said following the Maryland victory. "So having that deep bench, it doesn't stop our game plan at all. We have guys on the bench who can come in, and they'll still do what they're supposed to do. Luckily we had guys that came in that made huge plays like Nazeer and Julian and guys like that."
Chambers only echoed the mention of trust and confidence, especially among a bench that has seen a few new faces from time to time with five starting lineup combinations to date.
Who has impressed him though?
Chambers specifically noted that both Moore and Payton Banks have been significant in non-starting roles.
In the five-game stretch, Banks came off the bench to register double digits in each of the first three games, which also includes a 17-point showing against Illinois, where he also shot 4-for-5 from behind the arc.
"Payton, to be selfless, he really could start, he should start, but he just wants to win," Chambers said. "He doesn't care if he started or came off the bench, so he sacrificed."
Outside of Bostick and with Terrence Samuel out with and illness, Chambers also noted that Davis Zemgulis has also made contributions lately. Making his third appearance in a conference game this season, Zemgulis came off the bench and grabbed a board against Maryland.
"Nazeer and Davis really have stepped up in practice and they stepped up in the Maryland game," Chambers said. "My confidence in them is sky high, so I look forward to them getting more minutes as we go down the stretch here."
A Bit About Illinois
The Fighting Illini head into Saturday's matchup coming off of a 68-61 win on the road at Northwestern Tuesday. Leading scorer Malcolm Hill led the team with 14 points and nine rebounds in the win against the Wildcats.
On the year, Hill's averaging 16.9 points per game, which ranks sixth in the conference standings. In Penn State's earlier win against Illinois, Hill was also one of three in double figures, leading the team with 19 points.
Having already seen the Fighting Illini this year, the Nittany Lions have plenty to look back on, having held Illinois to less than 70 points with a 60 percent shooting effort in the first half of the most recent meeting. In the second half though, the Fighting Illini trimmed a 20-point Penn State lead to as few as three before the Nittany Lions' impressive foul shooting in the final minutes held off Illinois.
"We shot the ball well in the first half and then they came out and kind of role reversed, we were still up 22 with four minutes to go and then they just played desperate and hard and we started playing a little bit not to lose instead of playing to win and being confident," Chambers said.
As Chambers noted it was a tale of two halves, but his remedy come Saturday is just the same as always, stick to Penn State basketball.Tipoff at the State Farm Center is set for 2 p.m. ET with live coverage on Big Ten Network.