I don't think I am overestimating when I say tonight's game in Champaign is the critical swing game of the final six. A victory makes our path to the NCAA Tournament much easier, as we would only need to beat Nebraska and Penn State to likely be safe. It also would mean an opening round Big Ten Tournament game as a five or six seed against one of the bottom teams to get that 20th win. Beating Illinois also takes the pressure off on the Michigan State/Michigan/Indiana games, where they can be luxury, seed improving wins as opposed to necessary victories just to reach the tournament. Finally, a victory tonight likely eliminates another Bubble team, as I don't see a 5-8 Illinois team coming back to reach .500 or better in the league.
A loss has the opposite effect. It jacks up the pressure to get one of those three wins over a ranked opponent, with two of them coming on the road. It revives the Fighting Illini and starts pitting their direct profile against our own. Record-wise, we'd be almost dead even, but their overall profile with the wins over Michigan State and Ohio State would be better.
It is a huge, huge, HUGE game. I tend to like Illinois, mostly because of Bruce Weber's coaching ties to the Gene Keady coaching tree and because Joe Kutsunis of Hail to the Orange is a robber baron amongst blogging men. But business is business, and I have to be selfish in wanting this game.
2011-12 record: 16-9, 5-7 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 94-84
Last Purdue win: 75-60 on 12/31/2011 at Purdue (Purdue has won six straight)
Last Illinois win: 66-48 on 2/8/2009 at Illinois
Time & TV: 8:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network
Our previous victory this season over the Illini hinged on the performance of Mrs. T-Mill and I as part of the alumni Paint Crew. We personally willed our Boilers to 10 minutes of near transcendent basketball on the final day of 2011, as Purdue went on a 26-5 run to start the second half and played possibly its best stretch of basketball at any point during the 2011-12 season.
To get a repeat victory it is critical for Travis Carroll and Jacob Lawson to re-enact their performance on Meyers Leonard. Leonard was limited seven points and six rebounds in 24 minutes. Lawson didn't score, but started and played 18 minutes of solid defense. Carroll came off the bench for seven points, two rebounds, and two steals in 21 minutes as he repeatedly frustrated Leonard.
We learned that night that a frustrated Leonard is not a good Leonard. He makes turnovers. He fouls. He complains to the officials and visibly sulks on the court instead of doing what must be done. If anything, he knows that Travis Carroll of all people can get into his head, so I'd like to see TC repeat that tonight. Sandi Marcius didn't play because of his calf injury, but expect him to see some minutes tonight after sitting against Northwestern.
Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson did most of the damage on New Year's Eve, combining for 32 of their 60 points. Sam Maniscalco was a virtual non-factor with four turnovers compared to one assist at the point. Tracy Abrams did a better job of running the offense off the bench.
Basically, it is a plus if Richardson and Paul decide to become all-everything players. That only becomes a negative if Paul inexplicably morphs into Michael Jordan like he did against Ohio State. Yeah, he had 28 against Minnesota, but he took 23 shots to get there in an overtime loss. Lately he has gotten his points, but has had to shoot a lot ot get them. The one outlier was the Ohio State game, where he was 11 of 15 from the field, 8 of 10 from three, and 13 of 15 from the line for an astounding 43 points. For a below 40% field goal shooter who is under 35% from long range for the season, that was an incredible game. He's capable of delivering that, but it is certainly not the norm.
The Illini have not recovered from a loss at Penn State. When they lost 54-52 in Happy Valley they were 15-3 coming in and leading the Big Ten at 4-1. They have since gone 1-6 with the only win a 42-41 win over Michigan State that made your eyes bleed if you watched it. The only reason Illinois won was a 14 of 58 shooting "performance" from the Spartans where Keith Appling was 1 of 11 and Draymond Green was 1 of 6. Even then, Michigan State got 18 offensive rebounds and Leonard was once again a non-factor.
This is a team on the verge of breaking. There are rumors that Weber won't survive the season, and this game tonight could absolutely be their breaking point. They still have to host Michigan and go to Wisconsin and Ohio State, while a trip to Nebraska and a home game against Iowa are hardly layups with the way they have played. Purdue has to come out and get an early lead in tonight. We have to have a similar confident offense that attacks the basket like in the last two games.
Kelsey Barlow needs to keep attacking the rim and I'd put him on Paul to fluster him. Robbie Hummel must also attack, as him getting to the line late against Northwestern was key. Finally, we need to keep D.J. Byrd hot, whether it is form long range or from getting to the basket. Our offense has been very good about sharing the basketball, moving without the ball, attacking the rim, and getting it to the open man of late.
We had 20 assists on Sunday. That, my friends is Purdue basketball. Our past few years have seen us have incredible talent with JJ and E'Twaun, but even those teams struggled when they did not share the basketball and move without it offensively. We cannot become stagnant again. I feel like we started to turn a corner against Ohio State and got a little further around it on Sunday against Northwestern. It is imperative to keep moving, keep attacking, and keep sharing. This team absolutely must play as a unit with all five players functioning in concert. We've seen what can happen if it does that. I think we're starting to see it come together at the absolute right time, but I still fear that dreaded inconsistency that has cost us in so many of our nine losses.
The Purdue of the last two games wins with ease tonight. The Purdue of the previous five loses. It is that simple.