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Boilers tip-off Big Ten Tourney play

It is very difficult to defeat any team three times in a season. That being said, I was very disappointed when Penn State could not finish off Illinois yesterday afternoon. I felt that Purdue had better matchups with the Nittany Lions than we do with the Illini. Illinois has a couple of experienced big men and some guards that can shoot. That's good enough to be dangerous against any team in the country, and they have played some good teams this year. Also, we beat Penn State by 22 and 14, while we only beat Illinois by 7 and 8, the last of which came during E'Twaun Moore's coming out party. I have long said that Illinois is the most dangerous first day team in the Big Ten Tournament. They also have the added motivation of a third shot at Indiana in the semifinals if they get past us. That has to be a tempting target for them, but it is for us as well.

Since we last saw the Illini:

It hasn't been a great season, but the Illini have played a little bit better down the stretch by winning three of their last four games. The one loss came at home to Michigan State, but it was only by 8 points as their close game problems continued. In a bad loss at Michigan and a win at Iowa Brian Randle missed both games with an injured shoulder. There were rumors he would be out for the season. He only played 10 minutes against Michigan State, but yesterday against Penn State he had his best game in more than a month with 17 points. The last time he was in double figures was when he had 21 in the second Purdue game. Randle has had a very up and down season for a senior who has had much expected of him, so it is no coincidence that Illinois has struggled.

The leading scorer continues to be Shaun Pruitt. Pruitt caused severe matchup problems for us in both games this season, but it is his appalling free throw shooting that almost makes him a liability in the clutch. For the season he is shooting 57% from the line, but he is a player that once he starts to miss from the line he usually doesn't stop. The same is true for Illinois as a team. They had one of their better days against us the second time around hitting 73% from the line, but we still won by 8. The team average is just below 62% for the season, and that has actually improved recently. Should that trend continue Illinois has a chance against us.

Perhaps the player that scares me the most is Demetri McCamey. Since scoring 31 against Indiana in the fateful double overtime he has been rather quiet, but he did have 18 against Wisconsin and 11 yesterday. He is a very streaky shooter from 3-point land, but the Indiana game proved he can get hot. He hit 7 of 13 from long range in that game and would have sparked the upset if Pruitt had been able to just hit his free throws. It will be imperative that we don't let him get hot. If he does it makes Illinois a very dangerous team to deal with because of their size discrepancy in the paint.

I am worried about this game because it took a fantastic second half by all involved, especially E'Twaun Moore, to beat them in Champaign. Pruitt (18), Randle (21), McCamey (15), and Trent Meacham (14) each had outstanding games. Their one weakness in that game was 3 of 16 3-point shooting. We also shot 49% from the field, which has been difficult for us to reach all season. We out-rebounded them in that game and hit our free throws. In retrospect, it was one of our best outings of the season. We will need to repeat that if we are going to make it to Saturday.

In looking at all the numbers I have a difficult time seeing how Illinois has struggled so much this season outside of their free throw problems. They hold their opponents to just below 41% shooting from the field, they generally take care of the basketball, they aren't a terrible shooting team, and they rebound well. They rank near the bottom of the conference in 3-point shooting percentage, but when they have big guys like Randle and Pruitt they don't need to shoot the lights out. We should be concerned if coach Weber realizes this and starts pounding the ball inside against our smaller lineup. They had success against us this year from inside, so they know it can work again.

Game Outlook:

Illinois' history his season suggests that they are not long for this tournament. Even though they had a ton of advantages yesterday against Penn State they barely snuck by on a basket in the final 10 seconds. Because of Penn State's injury losses it is the type of game Illinois should have won by 10 points, but once again they had trouble closing the deal. It is at the point where it has clearly become a mental struggle for them to finish these games. Purdue is a much better team than Penn State, so Illinois will be forced to step up and play their best game of the season in order to win tonight. I am not expecting it.

There can be something said, however, for the issue of confidence. They have strung together a couple of wins here at the end of the season, and a win like yesterday's win is the type that can build that confidence. The key will be how we respond inside against Randle and Pruitt. If they get going early, raising Illinois' confidence level in the process, it will open things up for Meacham and McCamey. If they, too, get going from the outside as they are certainly capable of doing we will be in for a very long night. As we proved in Champaign though, even if all those things happen we can still beat them.

I am encouraged by the fact we have had a few days off to heal up some injuries. Against Ohio State last week we looked a little tired and beaten up in the overtime session. Since then we have only played one game in 10 days. This has allowed guys like Kramer and Grant to heal up some nagging injuries. We have also done well in Conseco Fieldhouse house this, as one of our better wins came over Louisville in the Wooden tradition on that floor.

It is because of our layoff that I expect to play well. After losing to Indiana a few weeks ago we had a week off and played a very solid game against Minnesota. We've tended to play very well after breaks, and the prospect of having at least a 4 seed is certainly worth playing for. We can kiss that goodbye with a loss, but with a win we also get another shot at Indiana. Assuming the Hoosiers do their part, it is something all Purdue fans have been waiting for since the loss in Bloomington. I think we will get that shot. Purdue 65, Illinois 60

Other Big Ten Thoughts

As I sit and write this Michigan State and Ohio State have just gone to the half tied at 30. If the night games go as they are expected that means the Spartans and Buckeyes are playing the last game with Bubble implications in the league. Here are some very brief thoughts on Big Ten play so far, and on today's action.

Michigan 55, Iowa 47

Maize N' Brew said it best with CRIPPLE FIGHT!!! You really cannot add to that.

Illinois 64, Penn State 63

This was actually a very exciting game. I am a big fan of Penn State now after the way they fought through so much this season. It's a shame they are not going to play in the NIT now. They deserve SOMETHING for their efforts.

Minnesota 55, Northwestern 52

Did someone just tell Northwestern they were Northwestern at the half? They looked like a real, live Big Ten team in the first half. It's almost like they got scared in the second and weren't able to close things out.

Wisconsin 51, Michigan 34

I saw the end of this game at lunch and it looked just as ugly as the score. Michael Flowers guarded Manny Harris so closely I'd be surprised if Harris could hit the urinal during his post-game leak. Wisconsin just dismantled the Wolverines.

Michigan State-Ohio State

Ohio State is fighting to stay alive. If the Spartans can win I like their chances against Wisconsin tomorrow.

Minnesota-Indiana

I know Minnesota can play with Indiana. They have a huge advantage in coaching, but Indiana has a huge advantage in overall talent. Big Ten officials desperately want an IU-Purdue rematch. I'd also like a Michigan State-Wisconsin rematch for a great day of basketball tomorrow.