I did not see this one coming. After three straight losses to start Big Ten play, including a 25-point drubbing against No. 5 Michigan State, the Illini used a pair of exceptional offensive performances from Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill to down No. 20 Purdue, 84-70. Hill dropped 30 and Nunn added 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting.
While the game was tied at 37 at halftime, Illinois pounced with a 12-2 run in the opening 2:41, nine points coming from Nunn and a three from Hill. From there, Illinois never let its foot off the gas and powered its way to the first Big Ten win of the season.
Here's a few notes from Sunday.
1. Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn are the best scoring combo in the Big Ten
The numbers can speak for themselves. The two combine for 35.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per game and they're hoisting a combined 11.4 3-pointers per game. Purdue boasts the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in Raphael Davis but he couldn't check Hill and battled foul trouble in only 21 minutes. Nunn took advantage with an efficient shooting day in the first game back since the birth of his child (Congrats Kendrick!) It's obvious that these two guys have to light up the scoreboard to give Illinois a chance but they keep answering the bell. Nunn probably has never missed a corner three in his career (approximately) and Hill takes and makes difficult midrange and fading shots out of the post. They compliment each other so well on the court and it shows.
2. Defense on a string is a beautiful thing
I feel like Illinois almost always has a good gameplan against Purdue, specifically against their blue-chip big man A.J. Hammons. (Perception isn't always reality, Hammons averages 10.5 points per game in his career against Illinois, just a tick below his career average of 11.5 PPG) Illinois frustrated Purdue by fronting the post against Hammons and fellow behemoth Isaac Haas and immediately double-teaming and forcing the ball out of post. The Illini were comfortable allowing Purdue to chuck up threes rather than pound the ball down low, and the Boilers shot just 31.8% from deep and force-feeding the post led to 16 Purdue turnovers. Illinois is about as small as it gets for a Big Ten team, but tactics outweighed size for one day.
3. Sunday was a brutal application of the newly-enforced "freedom of movement" rules
As Big Ten games normally go, Sunday was part basketball game, part slugfest between two physical teams. Or at least that's what the box score would indicate as the teams combined for 37 fouls, mostly of the ticky-tack variety. Neither coach was particularly pleased as key players were slapped with touch fouls on the perimeter. From a fans perspective who has watched the Big Ten for years, it was frustrating to watch a whistle stop play every 30 seconds. I say let 'em play. But whatever.
(optional 4th point) My review of the Traditions Club
For anyone that cares, I spent Sunday watching the game from the Traditions Club, the newly-renovated suite area loaded with food and alcohol. (Girlfriends give the best Christmas presents) My verdict: It was pretty swanky and a cool upgrade for the people that can afford to be there. Each game the Traditions Club has a premade meal -- Sunday's was beef medallions with caramelized onion bacon jam with sweet potato fries and a salad. It was competitively priced, $10 for the meal, although I was a little disappointed that it was an additional $5 to add a slice of pie to the plate. The area is roped off to keep the alcohol contained, and they have a nice beer selection including Sierra Nevada and Two Brothers products in addition to the usual macrobeers. My only complaint is the "viewing area" with alcohol is predictably very crowded and allows for little view of the court unless you're in the first row. All in all, it was a great experience and the Traditions Club is an exciting new development for SFC.