New Year's Eve is almost upon us, but before the ball drops while most of us are in an alcohol infused haze, we have the business of our Big Ten home opener and defending our lengthy home winning streak to attend to. Mrs. T-Mill and I have been invited to be part of the alumni Paint Crew tomorrow, so for the first time in almost 10 years I will get to sit in the lower bowl and re-enact my Gene Pool days. It also marks the first time I will get to see Purdue in person this year after being sick the night of the Miami game.
At stake is a 2-0 start in league play, and a possible 4-0 start assuming we can take care of business against a very weakened Penn State team and on the Demon Wood of Xibalba at The Barn. As much as I would like to tear that court up plank by plank and kill it with fire, I'll take Robbie going Keyser Soze on the Gophers as revenge.
That is looking ahead, however. Tomorrow at home we get an Illinois team that has been in and out of the rankings thus far and one that will likely be in the middle of the big Ten battling for an NCAA berth with us. It is important, then, that we defend home court in games such as these. They started the year 10-0 before losing two of their last three in non-conference play to UNLV and Missouri. That's an impressive mark, but really only two wins came over a team of consequence. They have an 82-75 win over Gonzaga and a 71-62 win at Maryland in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
2011-12 record: 12-2, 1-0 Big Ten
2010-11 record: 20-14, 9-9 Big Ten, lost to Kansas 73-59 in NCAA 2nd round
Blog Representation: Hail to the Orange
Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 93-84
Last Purdue win: 75-67 on 3/1/2011 at Purdue (Purdue has won five straight)
Last Illinois win: 66-48 on 2/8/2009 at Illinois
My biggest concern for this game is Meyers Leonard, a player that Joe K. from Hail to the Orange described as, "any possession where doesn't get a touch is a wasted possession." Given our lack of depth in the paint and the questionable nature of Sandi Marcius and his calf injury, Leonard is incredibly dangerous. The 7'1" 245 sophomore is averaging 13.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game. He's a 20 and 10 waiting to happen that also stays out of foul trouble, so there goes that strategy. He had 20 and 11 in the double overtime win over Minnesota earlier this week.
The Fighting Illini have four players that average in double figures. D.J. Richardson leads with 14.23 per game and shoots nearly 41% from long range. Brandon Paul (12.0) and Sam Maniscalco (10.6) round out this quartet. Maniscalco is making a 1-season-only appearance in the Big Ten much like Brandon Wood at Michigan State. Maniscalco averaged almost four assists per game at Bradley before coming to Illinois this year. He shoots 31.8% from three and averages almost three assists running the point.
Paul has made a nice jump to double figures this year and also averages better than three assists per game. He can do a little bit of everything with over four rebounds and a steal per contest as well.
One benefit of playing Illinois is that they are guard heavy like us, but Leonard trumps anything we have down low. Richardson, Maniscalco, and Paul are all guards, with junior Tyler Griffey often drawing the fifth starter's role. He is not as big of a threat at the four as Robbie Hummel, however, so Rob might be able to help Jacob Lawson and Travis Carroll on Leonard. The only other scoring threat is Joseph Bertrand, who gives them five points off the bench. Tracy Abrams, Mike Shaw, and Nnanna Egwu play off the bench, but don't often score. Only Egwu comes close to matching Leonard, so we'll likely see him when Leonard needs a rest.
This game concerns my because of Leonard. I don't think we have anyone that comes close to stopping him, so we must deny him the ball while still defending the perimeter. Even with Leonard the Illini have struggled in some games. They only managed to beat Cornell by four and St. Bonaventure by five. No offense to them, but Minnesota likely wins this week with a healthy Trevor Mbakwe.
We're going to see a lot of games like this during Big Ten play. It's hard to make a call because it is probably going to come down to the wire, and our history this season is spotty in those games. Iona, technically the best team we have played with an RPI of 11, was an example of us holding on to win. So were Iowa and High Point, so we do know how to win close games. Unfortunately, we all remember Xavier and Butler too.
If it comes down to free throws, we're pretty screwed. Illinois shoots almost 75% as a team with Bertrand at 92% and even Leonard at 75%. Fortunately, they only shoot 45% from the field even with a 7'1" monster taking shots at the rim from 3 feet away. We have to have our defense play well and force them into poor shots.