There was no career game for Illinois guard Brandon Paul at the bowling alley the other night. But the guy in the next lane rolled a 300, which led Paul to think: Which is the greater accomplishment, 8 of 10 from the 3-point line against Ohio State or a 300? "They're both pretty tough,'' he said. "I haven't done the bowling thing yet.''

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There was no career game for Illinois guard Brandon Paul at the bowling alley the other night.

But the guy in the next lane rolled a 300, which led Paul to think: Which is the greater accomplishment, 8 of 10 from the 3-point line against Ohio State or a 300?

"They're both pretty tough,'' he said. "I haven't done the bowling thing yet.''

Life has changed for Paul and his Illinois teammates. No matter what Paul said, the biggest difference wasn't the 2,000-plus followers added to his Twitter account after 43-point night against the Buckeyes last week.

The upset gave the Illini season a shot in the arm. Nine days later, No. 22 Illinois plays at Penn State Thursday with the outright lead in the Big Ten Conference basketball race and -- suddenly -- greater expectations from a fan base that was edgy earlier this month.

In this crazy Big Ten season, coaches will tell you it's not who you play but when you play them. The Illini would have been ripe for a loss after such an emotional high last week, but a bye weekend may have let that big win slide into the rear-view mirror.

"It gave us a chance to come back down to Earth,'' said Illini coach Bruce Weber. "We were flying pretty high after the win. The more days off allowed us to settle down a little bit.''

Now for the encore. A big win over Ohio State was good, but a loss to Penn State would put the Illini right back where they started.

"It's good that we had the break right now,'' said Illini point guard Sam Maniscalco, who will play after missing the last three games to rest a painful right ankle. "As much as you want to escape it, with Brandon's performance, it's pretty tough.''

Paul may not ever have a night like he did against Ohio State, when he was 11 of 15 from the field, 8 of 10 from the three and 13 of 15 on free throws with eight rebounds and four blocks, but he could get off to a better start.

"The thing I'd like from him is to have a sense of urgency at the start of the game and become more consistent,'' Weber said. "That sense of urgency, that consistency are the two things I'd like as we progress through the season.''

Paul's 43-point game was the third highest in Illini history and ranked second in college basketball this season behind Creighton's Doug McDermott, who put up 44 against Bradley. Paul is shooting 34.5 percent from the 3-point line this season, and Weber would like that to creep closer to 40 percent.

No one would confuse Penn State for Ohio State, but Happy Valley has its quirks. Instead of facing an intimidating crowd, the Illini must learn to motivate themselves. Us-against-the-world doesn't work when there are more empty seats than filled and the upper deck is partially hidden with a giant curtain.

The Illini lost in their last two trips here.

"It's a maturity game,'' Weber said. "You've got to get up for the game.''

After Penn State whipped Purdue by 20 earlier this month, Weber was warned, "You better tell the guys to hitch it up and be ready to play,' '' he said. "That's going to be our message.''

After Illinois won all three games in his absence, Maniscalco is eager to work his way back into the mix. The goal is 10 to 15 minutes of playing time.

"Having not done anything for the last 2 1/2 weeks and being in the (walking) boot, 10 to 15 looks like a good goal right now,'' Maniscalco said. "It's not fun sitting and watching. At the same time, I'm re-energized and looking forward to the opportunity.''

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.


No. 22 Illinois (15-3, 4-1) vs. Penn State (9-10, 1-5)

8 p.m., Bryce Jordan Center, State College, Pa. (ESPN2, Illini Sports Network)

ILLINOIS (15-3, 4-1)   ppg     rpg
F Joe Bertrand 6-5 So. 6.8. 2.3
C Meyers Leonard 7-1 So. 13.0 7.8
G Brandon Paul 6-4 Jr. 13.8 4.7
G D.J. Richardson 6-3 Jr. 13.0 2.9
G Tracy Abrams 6-1 Fr. 2.5 2.4

PENN STATE (9-10, 1-5)     ppg   rpg
F Billy Oliver 6-8 Jr. 7.3 3.6
F Jon Graham 6-8 Fr. 3.5 3.3
G Tim Frazier 6-1 Jr. 18.2 5.2
G Matt Glover 6-4 So. 3.4 4.4
G Jermaine Marshall 6-4 So. 10.1 3.7

Noteworthy: Illinois won its last three games, the longest active streak in the Big Ten. ... Penn State won five of the last nine meetings overall. Five of the last eight games in the series have been decided by 2 points or less and four by a point. ... Frazier posted three consecutive 20-plus scoring games. He leads the Big Ten with nine games with 20 points or more. ... Holy cholesterol. It's dollar hot dog night.

Key for Illini: Forget about Ohio State. The season begins now.

Key for Nittany Lions: Find some help for Frazier. Senior forward Cameron Woodyard had a career-high 22 against Minnesota last weekend.

Key quote: "I'm not sure any favorites won a game in the Big Ten (over the weekend). I'm not sure there are any favorites, to be honest. There are a lot of good teams in the league.'' -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber.

Prediction: Illinois 72, Penn State 68