The Illinois Fighting Illini (19-11, 9-8) are coming off two straight home victories over Northwestern and Nebraska respectively. Last weekend, Illinois throttled the Wildcats 86-60, and this past Wednesday, on Senior Night in Champaign, they took care of business against the Huskers 69-57. Those were two must-win games that didn't really boost the team's RPI, but they were crucial victories in helping set up the most pivotal game of the entire season for the Illini.
Sitting squarely on the bubble, John Groce's squad is looking to pick up a monumental and resume-boosting win in Mackey Arena that could propel them into the NCAA tournament and also notch them their twentieth victory this year. One of those victories came against the same team they'll be facing this Saturday, a 66-57 win earlier in January in Champaign. Leron Black had an incredible night from the field and finished with a season-high 15 points and 13 rebounds. He'll need to try and repeat that type of performance if the Illini want to pull off the upset and get off the bubble. But their opponent finds themselves in a similar situation.
The Purdue Boilermakers (19-11, 11-6) are on a two-game losing streak heading into the regular season finale this Saturday. That's not the position they were hoping to be in at this point, but for a team that many didn't even project to make the postseason in 2015, they'll take it. Sitting at 11-6 in the Big Ten standings, they're currently in fifth place and would receive the five-seed if the Big Ten tournament started tomorrow. But much like the Illini, the Boilermakers have their eyes on a much bigger prize; the field of 68.
Thanks to some resume-killing losses in the non-conference portion of the season, Matt Painter's group has been fighting to make it back to NCAA tournament discussions since the early hole they dug themselves. Amazingly enough, they've done it. With quality road wins against Iowa and Indiana as well as a home victory against the Hoosiers, Purdue is also right on the bubble. Some "bracket experts" are calling this weekend's matchup a play-in game for the right to dance in the NCAA tournament. Any way you slice it, this game is HUGE.
Illinois Fighting Illini:
- Ahmad Starks | SR
- Kendrick Nunn | SO
- Rayvonte Rice | SR
- Malcolm Hill | SO
- Nnanna Egwu | SR
- Jon Octeus | SR
- Dakota Mathias | FR
- Rapheal Davis | JR
- Vince Edwards | FR
- A.J. Hammons | JR
Purdue's Four Factors:
|Effective FG %||51.1 (88th)||45.6 (46th)|
|Offensive Rebounding %||36.6 (25th)||31.0 (171st)|
|FTA/FGA||42.4 (54th)||39.0 (221st)|
A very solid team on this side of the ball. They rank 45th in the nation in two-point field goals made and 58th in the nation in KenPom's "offensive adjusted efficiency" rating. Unexpected guard weapons have emerged for Purdue, including sophomore Kendall Stephens (who missed most of the game against the Illini in January with an injury), senior Jon Octeus (shoots 39 percent from three-point range), and junior Rapheal Davis (averages 11 points per game). They also boast a freshman sniper from behind the arc, Dakota Mathias, who's hitting well over one-out-of-every-three shots he takes from three-point land. They rank 34th in the country in assists per game and 69th in overall field goal percentage. This isn't a squad that's going to hang 80 or 90 points on you every time out, but it's a very solid unit that has an inside presence as well as shooters around the perimeter.
Unlike their offense, Purdue's defense is up-and-down to say the least. This is a team that held Michigan to 51 points, Ohio State to 56 points, and Wisconsin to 62 points (pretty good for the Badgers' standards). This is also a team that allowed Penn State to score 77 points, Michigan State to score 72 points, and Rutgers to score a whopping 86 points. They rank 130th in points allowed per game nationally, and aren't much better in rebounds (115th) and steals (242nd) per game. But they're in the top fifteen in the nation in blocks per game, mostly thanks to the two seven-footers they have in the paint, A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas. They also foul the opposing team a lot (second-most fouls per game in the conference). Free-throw discrepancy has played a large role in the Boilers' close losses this season (were outshot at the line 31-7 by Wisconsin, 24-9 by the Illini in Champaign, and 20-5 by Minnesota). A key for the Illini to win in enemy territory is to draw fouls early and often, considering they still rank as the best free-throw shooting team in the entire country.
John Groce previews Purdue:
Pregame Hype Video
I haven't done one of these in a while, but considering the magnitude of the game, I thought I'd throw something together for a little extra fun:
TCR Prediction: Purdue 70, Illinois 68
A win on Saturday would give Illinois its best Big Ten record in five years at 10-8 overall, and might also give them the possibility of grabbing the seventh-seed in the Big Ten Tournament as opposed to the eighth or ninth. But as crucial a game as this is, and as much as I'd like to say I think Illinois is going to find a way to pull it out, Purdue is a really tough team and they're at home. It'll be a close battle throughout and both sides are well aware of what is at stake, but I think the Boilermakers will find a way to grind out a victory in front of their fans.
KenPom Prediction: Purdue 67, Illinois 63 (33% win probability)