Okay, now that I have my man-crush out of the way it's time to get on with the business of previewing this Illinois game. From my Big Ten power rankings on Monday I compared the Illini to Britney Spears. A few years ago they were on top as one of the best in the nation. Now they are struggling at .500 and are 1-4 in the league. I had them pegged as one of the teams we would battle for an NCAA berth this year, but unless they get on an unbelievable winning streak starting tomorrow they are an NIT team at best. I have moved them down to tier 3 status (revamped this morning), meaning it is more important than ever to win this game. We can't afford to lose a home game to a tier 3 team, and a win would also begin stirrings of a possible Big Ten title (stirrings only).
Illinois so far:
Are the Illini allergic to Garcia's Pizza or something? I found out this week that Champaign still actually has a Garcia's Pizza, which instantly made me jones for some since Purdue's location has been long closed. If they could please bring me some over on the bus that would be great, I want them to carry the allergy with them since the Illini have played so poorly at home. Things started well for the Illini as they picked up a pair of convincing wins over Arizona State and Oklahoma State in the Maui Invitational and appeared to be on their way to another NCAA bid. Early losses to Duke, Maryland, and Arizona certainly aren't bad, but since then things have fallen apart. Illinois lost to Miami (OH), Penn State, and Tennessee State at home. Those three losses probably killed any goodwill Illinois gained from its earlier wins.
The Illini are still a very tough team even if their record doesn't reflect it. They played Indiana to a pretty close game this past Sunday and hung in there against both Arizona and Maryland earlier. What the Illini lack is an ability to finish, and that was evident in all three of the bad losses mentioned above. It is obvious to me based on their work in Maui that the talent is there, but they only recently broke a five game losing streak by beating Michigan this week.
Who is dangerous for the Illini:
Once again we are facing a team with size as 6-10 senior Shaun Pruitt leads Illinois in both points (12.8) and rebounding (7.8). Brian Randle returns for what seems like his 16th season in Champaign, averaging 10.2 points per game from his forward position. Junior guard Trent Meachem is also averaging 10.2 points per game. Meachem is the biggest 3-point shooting threat, shooting about 35% from long range. The top four scorers for the Illini are all upperclassmen, which makes their recent struggles even more boggling.
Illinois defends the 3-pointer well, holding teams to just 30% from beyond the arc, but as is expected from a team that is hovering at the .500 mark overall, there aren't really any other eye-poppingly good statistics out there. Illinois seems to trend to the middle or bottom of most statistical categories according to the Big Ten's website, but their size does help them on the offensive glass. No one is even in the top 15 overall in scoring.
What not to fear from Illinois:
If the Illini are at the line we had better box out. Illinois shoots a pathetic 59% from the free throw line as a team, good for dead last in the conference right now. The same can be said for their 3-point shooting, as they are the only team in the conference below 30% from long range. The Illini rank ninth in scoring in the conference, and aren't particularly stifling when it comes to defense at 61 points. Illinois is one of those teams that isn't really, really bad, but they aren't really, really good either. In a down year for the Big Ten they are positively mediocre.
Like us the Illini normally plays a rotation of nine guys, and they are fairly balanced in scoring with no one standing head and shoulders above the rest. Their most recent contest against Michigan was a perfect example of this in that their top four scorers were their top four by average and each was in double figures. They do share the ball well in that they near the top of the conference in assists, but it's been awhile since they've been able to beat even a marginally good team.
It's become a common refrain, but this is a big game for Purdue. We must hold serve at home and beat the teams we should beat. I know it sounds like the football team's outlook, but this year will be considered a success if we just make the tournament. We can do that by simply beating everyone we should beat the rest of the way. To do that we have to win these home games, and in my revamped tier system I am not allowing for a loss at home against one of the conference's bottom five teams.
Illinois is obviously going through a down year, but they are coming off of a much needed 18 point win over Michigan at home. Is that something that is going to allow them to get their mojo back? Since there isn't a single standout we need to focus on we will be forced to play more team-oriented defense as well. They also have a lot more experience than we do, as both Randle and Pruitt were around for that team that nearly went undefeated a few years ago. Pruitt has the ability to be a serious matchup liability inside since Calasan and Johnson are gaining experience.
I expect another close game simply because Illinois has played a ton of them this year and they are not afraid to play on the road. You don't know what you're going to get with this Illinois team because they have some good wins this year, but some bad losses as well. We must be ready to play again because we cannot rely on "bad Illinois" to show up. Of course, as long as they show up with some Garcia's for me, I don't care. Purdue 67, Illinois 60.