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The Clincher

** Special thanks to Justin Metz (a.k.a. Sheets for Heisman) for the submission of the new banner here at Off the Tracks. It looks great!**

As mentioned in yesterday's wrap up from the Iowa game, tomorrow's date with Illinois is what I view as the Clincher. I still view a 20 win season, and the 11 Big Ten wins that must come with it, will clinch a berth in the NCAA tournament. With the way we have played thus far I now expect bigger and better things of course, but to do some damage in the tournament you must first get there. Since we currently sit at 16 and 7 in our respective win columns and have two games with Northwestern and a game against Penn State left getting to 19 and 10 shouldn't be a challenge. Beating Illinois and Michigan in addition to those, without doing anything else, will almost assuredly put us in the tournament. This means our remaining games would be for a seed as opposed to just a bid. This game is our clincher because there is no way we should lose to either Penn State or Northwestern, while Michigan could be just a little tricky.

Illinois will likely the most difficult challenge of our remaining five games against the bottom of the league because of their aggregate talent. That talent has certainly been the most disappointing story in the league this year, but they are dangerous enough to still beat almost anyone as evidenced by their first half performance in East Lansing this week. Unfortunately for the Illini, they don't play nearly as hard as the Iowa team we just beat. While that effort can keep Iowa in most games, it is that lack of effort that hurts the Illini.

Since we last saw the Illini…

Illinois has played three games since our meeting two weeks ago, going 1-2 in that span. On January 27th they absolutely crushed Northwestern in Champaign 70-37. As my colleague over at Lake the Posts stated in his evaluation of that game, the Illinois-Northwestern game sealed up the first part of the 2007-08 Illinois highlight video and showed the need for a change in Evanston. In the other two games of that stretch the Illini showed their maddening tendency to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. On January 22nd the Illini played Ohio State tough in Columbus before falling 64-58 in the final minutes. That game was marked by an uncharacteristically strong second half. Against Michigan State on Wednesday Illinois led the Spartans at the half before scoring on 17 in the second half to lose 51-41. They now stand at 10-12, 2-7 in the Big Ten, and would need a big run just to get to the NIT.

I really feel sorry for former Purdue assistant coach Bruce Weber, as his team this season is terrible with fundamentals. They continue to rank dead last in the conference in free throw shooting at 58.7%, which has certainly been costly given the number of games (seven) lost by seven points or fewer. They have built a new orphanage in Champaign this winter as they are also last in the conference in 3-point shooting. At least each brick from beyond the arc is keeping kids in central Illinois warm. They also don't know how to keep their mouths shut, as evidenced by the trash talking incident from the game in Mackey Arena two weeks ago.

It was noted after that game in West Lafayette that coach Weber gave his team quite a reaming in the locker room, so much so that his yelling was heard in the hall by the media. As mistake-prone as his team has been they probably deserved it. They haven't done a great job of defending their home court either. I will give Illinois credit for playing one of the more difficult schedules in the country, but that only pays off if they can back it up by not losing to the Tennessee State's on their schedule.

Illinois' more recent struggles can be attributed to the fact that two of their leading scorers have done little to nothing in the last three games. A player with Brian Randle's experience should not score only two points in a 33 point blowout of Northwestern. Shaun Pruitt didn't play against Ohio State, and was not in double figures against Northwestern or Michigan State. That is just part of the reason that the Illini ranked ninth in the conference in scoring, just barely ahead of Northwestern.

Game keys:

Much like the Iowa game, many of the same keys remain the same since we only played them two weeks ago. Illinois has proven that they are a team that will crack when they fall behind in the second half, and what has normally been a zealous home crowd will probably have a number of Purdue fans in it since they are technically our closest Big Ten opponent. Right now they are playing a team that has had its spirit broken and they are merely resigning themselves to play out the string.

One other critical factor is that next Thursday is the Holy War game with Indiana. These people are seriously pissed off that Eric Gordon jilted them for IU, and since they played the Hoosiers to a four point game in Bloomington a few weeks ago they will be out for blood. Since Illinois has little else to play for they may hold back a bit to save something for that game. Still, we cannot rely on that and expect to walk out with an easy win.

Strangely Illinois has been a place where we have always played fairly well. We have to get off to a better start than we did two weeks ago because you never want to have to come from behind on the road. We're going in as a first place team, meaning for the first time in a very long time we are the hunted. How will we respond to this? It will not be as big of a factor with Illinois already so far out of the race, but it is important for us to get to the halfway point at 8-1. So far this season we have taken care of business against the lesser teams and we must do that again.

Calasan was key to the victory two weeks ago with 17 points in one of his best efforts of the season so far. Keaton Grant also had a big game with 22 points. Since we have been such a balanced team this season we don't need those two specific guys to have huge games again, we just need similar efforts from any number of our cast of characters. In that game we used a 20-3 run, and Illinois has been prone to give up big runs all season long. Therefore, we must take this runs if they are given to us. When the Illini go cold (and they will) we must jump on it. Since E'Twaun Moore has been heating up the last few games and appears to be figuring out the Big Ten more each game it will be fun to so sick him on them. I'd also like to see Kramer score more, but he has been wreaking havoc defensively and that is just fine with me.

For the first time I am going to take a stance of guarded optimism. I think we should win and I think we will win, but nothing is ever easy with this team as we saw on Wednesday. The bottom line is we can easily keep this game close, and I don't trust Illinois to be able to close it with free throws. That is a huge negative in their favor, and I see it as their undoing this week. Hopefully Illinois has its big game in the next game, not this one. Purdue 65, Illinois 60.