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Opening Odds and Game Preview: #7 Purdue at #25 Illinois

Purdue travels to Illinois for a noon tip-off on MLK Day for a top-twenty-five matchup.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Purdue Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten has officially started.

While Purdue has to be disappointed with two early upsets in the conference schedule, including a home loss against Wisconsin, the Fighting Illini are undefeated in conference play after beating an undermanned Michigan team on Friday night.

The two teams came in as the biggest favorites in the conference. While Illinois has yet to lose to a Big Ten team, they’ve also failed to live up to their non-conference schedule. They dropped games to Marquette, Cincinnati, and Arizona in between winning their first six Big Ten games.

For Purdue, they crushed the non-conference portion of their schedule. They took the Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament with wins over North Carolina and Villanova before crushing Florida State at home.

Familiar foes have given Purdue familiar problems. Two thirty point performances from Ron Harper Jr. and Johnny Davis powered Rutgers and Wisconsin into two early upsets for a Purdue team expecting to finish at the top of the Big Ten. They’ve won their last two conference games after having their road trip to Ann Arbor delayed after a COVID outbreak by the Wolverines last week. That leaves Purdue at 3-2 in the conference, two games behind conference leading Illinois (6-0).

A win by Purdue and they’ll be right back in the race. An Illinois win puts one of their biggest challengers in a big hole early.

But that big picture stuff isn’t nearly as fun as the big men in this game.

And we’re talking really big men.

This game will showcase the three best big men in the conference, and maybe the country. For Illinois, Kofi Cockburn has been the everything wrecking ball they thought they were going to lose in the off season. He’s averaging 21.9 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 1 block a game. He’s as dominant a force as there is in the country.

For Purdue, it’s not just one, but two Centers, who have dominated in their twenty minutes a game role. Trevion Williams and Zach Edey have combined to score 28.7 points, 16.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 2.1 blocks a game.

Cockburn is the best athlete, an explosive rim protector, with unusual body heft to go with his lateral movement and vertical explosiveness. He is a bully in the post and a monster rolling to the hoop.

But Cockburn will be looking up to Edey, who has four inches on him. He will be Cockburn’s most difficult challenge. Edey is shooting above 70% on the year. He’s capable of scoring over either shoulder. He likes to dunk, a lot, and he makes his free throws if you put him to the line.

For Trevion Williams, Cockburn’s size and strength presents problems at both ends. Williams doesn’t have the size to challenge Cockburn at the rim, and he’s struggled to score one on one against bigs he can’t move. Thankfully for Purdue, Williams is the best passer in the conference, and can be dangerous without scoring. He’s also shown an ability to take bigs outside to the perimeter and use his unique ball handling for a big, to make opposing bigs uncomfortable guarding the ball on the perimeter. Expect Coach Painter to use Williams on the perimeter more, initiating offense, and keeping Cockburn out of the paint and off the glass as much as possible.

In last year’s one match-up, Illinois got the best of Purdue and their bigs in a 66-58 win at home.

Cockburn was the best big man on the floor but he struggled to act as the offensive focal point, scoring just 14 points and grabbing 10 rebounds (just one offensive).

It will be fascinating to see just how much Edey has improved. He’s been the most efficient player in the country on offense, the best offensive rebounder, and a two way force in a way he just wasn’t last year. Cockburn isn’t used to playing against guys bigger than him. Certainly not someone as big as him that can also move with him. Edey checks both of those boxes. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

But there’s a good chance the big men wash each other out. All three of them are so good that if Cockburn doesn’t get in foul trouble, it’s unlikely either team creates a major edge inside. (Foul trouble, one way or the other, can absolutely swing this game in either team’s direction.)

Which means it comes down to the perimeter. Jaden Ivey has been excellent for Coach Painter all season, but Purdue’s perimeter defense has been a let down most the season. While Andre Curbelo is still out with a neck injury, Coach Underwood has plenty of experienced talent remaining on his roster. Illinois is one of the best shooting teams in the country. Purdue has given up a lot of three pointers.

Trent Frazier is still at Illinois. Jacob Grandison is shooting nearly 50% from three. Illinois will be at home.

This is Purdue’s biggest challenge of the season, a true road game, against the one big man in the country that matches theirs on a team of guards that can all shoot, handle, and pressure the ball.

Purdue looked to have figured some things out in their throttling of Nebraska on Friday night. They’ll need to remember it to announce themselves as back to the team with Final Four and Big Ten Championship aspirations. A win, and they’re right back in the picture of best teams in the country. A loss, and well, it’s the Fighting Illini’s conference and Purdue’s got a lot more work to do.

Basketball GameDay Vitals

St. Peter's Peacocks Record: 21-11, 14-6 MAAC
St. Peter's Peacocks Record: 21-11, 14-6 MAAC
From: Jersey City, NJ
Game Location: Philadelphia, PA
Venue: Wells Fargo Center (19,500)
Odds: Purdue by 12.5
Date & Time: Friday, March 25, 2022, 7:09pm ET
Streaming Radio TuneIn
Live Stats: Purdue Sports
KenPom 101
NET 124
Blog Representation: None
2020-21 Record 14-11, 10-8
Postseason Result: None
NCAA Tournament History: 4th appearance. This is the first season they have won a game. 2017 CIT Champions
Series With Purdue: Purdue leads 1-0
Last Purdue win: 65-43 in Chicago, IL on 3/18/2011 (NCAA Tournament First Round)
Last St. Peter's win: None
Coach: Shaheen holloway (63-55 in 4th year at St. Peter's)