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Full Circle? Illinois comes to Mackey Arena

With the Fighting Illini coming to town we are reminded that it was in Champaign where our current winning streak started. We came into that game as a desperate team. We had lost three in a row and coach Painter had decided to switch things up. Keaton Grant and Chris Kramer were benched as starters, allowing Ryne Smith and Kelsey Barlow to notch their first career starts. John Hart also saw his first significant minutes of the season off the bench.

We all know what happened. The light seemed to come on for Barlow and he has played well in a starting role (save at Ohio State) since. Hart exploded for a very unexpected 14 points, even after getting a technical for not being listed in the official scorebook. Eight games later we're in a virtual tie for first place in the conference and have a chance at a number one seed. I think you can definitely call that a turning point game, especially since ESPN's Eamonn Brennan has be awesome enough to link Hammer & Rails four times since.

I don't know how much I will be able to comment on this game because I am covering two games tomorrow, but it is still a big one. I have been asked to do another Rush the Court LiveBlog for Siena at Butler in the morning, then I am covering Danville at North Central (conveniently seeing Travis Carroll and Terone Johnson) tomorrow night. We cannot let up in these home games as tomorrow's contest with Illinois is the first of a crucial three game stretch that will decide the Big Ten title.

2009-10 Record: 17-9, 9-4 Big Ten

2008-09 Record: 24-9, 11-7 Big Ten (lost 76-72 to Western Kentucky in NCAA Tournament First Round)

Blog Representation: Hail to the Orange

Common non-conference opponents: Defeated SIU-Edwardsville 96-69

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 90-84

Last Purdue win: 84-78 on 1/19/10 at Illinois

Last Illinois win: 66-48 on 2/8/09 at Illinois

In the last two seasons the team winning both regular season games has lost the Big Ten Tournament game.

Our most important task is to watch out for Demetri McCamey. The man has been on fire of late, especially in some big wins over Michigan State and at Wisconsin. He also loves to play against us. He was particularly deadly in the 2008 Big Ten Tournament win over us, and has stayed hot since. He had 28 points in game one, and can score from almost anywhere on the floor. He cooled off in Illinois' last game, scoring only nine points after four straight games of 15 or more. Consequently, Illinois lost by 19 at home to Ohio State.

As Joe over at Hail to the Orange said in his preview, Illinois is better when they have someone to help McCamey with the scoring load. One of those guys that can help is Mike Tisdale. Tisdale scares me some because he is one of the few, if not the only, true centers in the conference that can match up totally with JaJuan Johnson. Johnson is probably the better player, but Tisdale is more than capable of hanging with him on both ends of the floor. Tisdale is also a solid free throw shooter and can step out and hit the mid-range jumper like JJ. If I were Illinois, I would try to pound the ball in low to Tisdale so he can get JJ into foul trouble. It has been awhile since JJ has had a foul trouble game.

Tisdale probably has more help on the interior than JJ. Mike Davis is a solid scorer and rebounder with an effective mid-range jumper. Bill Cole can provide some relief minutes off the bench in both spots. D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul are effective shooters at the guard spots. Off the bench we can't forget Jeff Jordan, who is an excellent defensive player. Jordan may draw some key minutes on E'Twaun, who has been hot lately.

We won the last time because JJ woke up from a three game slide, John Hart played the game of his life, and we made the active decision to rebound after a poor performance at Northwestern. Of those three things, we only really need two to happen for us to complete the sweep. JJ needs to keep playing at the high level he has been playing at and we need to rebound as a team. We have seen lately that someone is going to step up and give us a solid contribution off the bench other than the Big Three. At Ohio State it was Keaton. Barlow has had some good games lately. Kramer is hitting some clutch baskets. The Hitman was effective the first time around.

We are playing at our best when we get these contributions. The nice thing is that teams feel like they are playing roulette because they don't know who is going to give us those points. Will it be Keaton? Hart? Kramer? Barlow? Is LewJack due? Maybe even Bade comes in and knocks down a few shots with that jumper of his. Maybe Ryne Smith thinks he is playing St. Joseph's and has a good game. Maybe Mark Wohlford channels his inner Bobby Buckets and hits a few threes. We're a dangerous team because we can be so versatile with our other options while still having a Big Three that gives us almost 50 points on your average night.

I know the potential is there for a letdown game. We have been playing at such a high level for so long that you know it is going to happen. A good time would have been last week against Iowa, where we would more easily survive. Now I feel like we can't have one until playing Indiana or Penn State. Those are games we should win even if we aren't playing at 100% efficiency. Illinois is a team that needs our full attention. They have already won at Wisconsin and they remember that they won in Mackey a year ago. They are not going to be in awe of our home court, where we have been virtually unstoppable except for the last five minutes of the Ohio State game.  We're already securely in the tournament. They could use one more big win to cement their place. A win would also put them right back in the hunt for the Big Ten title. Let's deny them that win.

Keys to the Game for Purdue:

  • McCamey will get his, don't let others help with the scoring load.
  • Win the battle between Tisdale and JJ.
  • Keep an eye on Richardson and Paul on the perimeter.
  • Illinois needs a signature win for its tournament resume. Don't let them get it.
  • Find the unexpected contributor ala John Hart in Champaign.

PREDICTION: Purdue 71, Illinois 64