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Illinois At Purdue Preview: The Big Ten Cometh

Purdue hosts No. 11 Illinois to open conference play.

Jonathan Daniel

I am thankful that we have a basketball game today to hopefully get the sour tastes of yesterday's football "game" out of our mouths. Yes, it is not a great matchup. The Fighting Illini are one of 10 remaining games scheduled against ranked teams, but a victory tonight would do wonders for a program searching for something positive in the 2012-13 season.

If anything, the start of the Big Ten seasons belies a chance that things can be different this year. We're not used to a 6-6 start to the season. A very strong Big Ten slate at least offers the possibility, however small, that things can turn around in a hurry. Since Purdue starts with three straight games against ranked foes it had better start now, because otherwise Purdue will be well behind in the conference race before it even begins.

I'll be in attendance tonight as part of the alumni Paint Crew, and I guarantee you'll get my loudest effort possible.

Illinois Fighting Illini

Location: Champaign, Illinois

2011-12 record: 17-15, 6-12 Big Ten

2012-13 Record: 13-1, 0-0 Big Ten

RPI: 11

2012 Postseason: None

Blog Representation: The Champaign Room (Here is Tom's Preview)

Series With Purdue: Purdue leads 95-84 (Purdue has won 7 straight)

Last Purdue win: 67-62 on 2/15/2012 at Illinois

Last Illinois win: 66-48 on 2/8/2009 at Illinois

Time: 8:30pm

TV: Big Ten Network

Odds: Illinois by 2.5

It is hard to believe that Purdue has won seven in a row in this series, but the Boilers have reeled off that many starting with a 10-point victory in the 2009 Big Ten tournament that avenged a regular season sweep by the Illini. The biggest victory in the seven-game winning streak was last season's 75-60 win in which Travis Carroll dominated Myles Leonard defensively in Mackey Arena.

That loss was the start of a freefall for Illinois. Like this year, Illinois came to Mackey with a solid overall record. They were 12-2 and just outside the top 25. The loss was the only one in a 4-1 league start and 15-3 overall start before the bottom fell out in a 2-12 finish. As I addressed in yesterday's Q&A with Tom, there is some concern that it could happen again. Tom is at least a little nervous.

The Illini have some really good wins so far. They won the Maui Invitational but got a little lucky in that Rick Barnes had his meltdown early when Texas lost to Chaminade, giving the Illini a D-2 opponent in round two. This was after beating USC, who is an embarrassment of a program at the major D-1 level. The 17 point win over Butler was very convincing, however.

Illinois has true road wins in long trips to Hawaii and Gonzaga, the second of which was an 85-74 win over the 10-rated Bulldogs. There are signs of struggle, however. They beat Garnder-Webb by a point at home and Auburn (5-7) gave them a close game on Saturday in Chicago before losing 81-79.

Illinois is led by the mercurial Brandon Paul, who has been all over the place in his college career. At times he can be unstoppable. He had 35 at Gonzaga this year and 43 in an upset of No. 5 Ohio State last season before everything came crashing down. On the other end, he had two points in a 23-point loss at Nebraska last season and four in the Big Ten Tournament loss to Iowa.

Sometimes out of control, Paul leads the team at three turnovers per game, but also leads with 18.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. He's shooting 36.5% from long range and almost 73% from the line, so if he is on Purdue is in deep trouble. So far he has been one of the best players in the Big Ten, which is surprising considering the talent the league has.

Tracy Abrams is having a very good sophomore season at 12.1 points and 1.9 assists per game. Senior D.J. Richardson has seen his numbers dip slightly, but he is still a potent third guard averaging 10.9 points per game and averaging two assists.

Perimter defense is going to be critical for Purdue because Illinois loves the three. They have 358 three-point attempts, equaling out to about 25 per game. As a team they hit on 37% of those attempts, with Richardson and Paul taking most of them. Tyler Griffey, Abrams, and Joseph Bertrand will also step out and shoot, while Myke Henry is a bit of a specialist in that department since almost half his field goal attempts are from long range.

Griffey could be a defensive problem as the 6'9" senior forward plays on the perimeter and will likely need to be trailed by Travis Carroll or Donnie Hale. In the middle Purdue has a huge advantage int hat A.J. Hammons is a major rebounding and scoring threat against Sam McLaurin and Nanna Egwu. Egwu averages 6.2 points but only 4.1 rebounds as a 6'11" post player. McLaurin is a one-year transfer from Coast Carolina that adds depth in the post.

Illinois is very much a one-on-one team, so Purdue's man defense could be an advantage. The Illini ranked 240th nationally in team assists, so sharing the basketball is not a strong suit. They are still scoring almost 77 points per game. Given Purdue's offensive struggles I think the Boilers will have to hold them under 70 to have any shot. The only teams to do that were Gardner-Webb, Norfolk State, and Eastern Kentucky. Holding them under 60, which hasn't been done, would be even better.

This is still largely the same team Purdue swept last season, while Purdue is vastly different. Purdue's ability to pull the upset comes down to keeping Paul in check and finding a way to score. Paul has had games of 17, 19, 23, 10, 13, and 5 in his career against Purdue. I think it will be up to Terone Johnson to hassle him into a bad night shooting, which has been standard lately. He is only 17 of 54 from the floor since the Gonzaga game. He's gotten his points by getting to the line 47 times in that span.

Celebrate the New Year with an upset of a ranked team if:

  • Paul continues to struggle shooting
  • Purdue dominate the glass
  • The Boilers regularly feed Hammons for baskets and he dominates
  • D.J. Byrd returns to his shooting form
  • Ronnie Johnson defends Richardson well

Look for a dejected T-Mill in the Paint Crew if:

  • Paul wakes up and goes crazy
  • Purdue continues to struggle to score points
  • Byrd has an 0-fer from long range
  • Hammons struggles against the offensively challenged Egwu
  • Richardson and Abrams pickup Paul's slack if he struggles.