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PREVIEW: Illinois attempts to rebound on the road against Purdue

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After a tough home loss to Maryland the Illini will try to save their season in West Lafayette.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Illinois vs Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois (12-6, 2-3) vs No. 17 Purdue (14-4, 3-2)

When: Tuesday, January 17th | 6:00pm CST

Where: Mackey Arena | West Lafayette, IN

KenPom: Illinois (65th) vs Purdue (18th)

Television: BTN (also available on BTN2Go app)

Radio: Fighting Illini Sports Network


The Illini are coming off an extremely frustrating loss to Maryland at home this past Saturday. After leading by five at halftime and continuing to play well in the first few minutes of the second half, the team went on an eight-minute scoring drought and fell apart, once again losing to the Terps 62-56. The Illini played what many considered their best defensive effort of the season until their second half collapse, which made the close loss to a strong NCAA tournament team that much more frustrating. The L put the orange and blue at 2-3 in Big Ten play with a chance to get back to .500 this Tuesday against Purdue.

The Boilermakers were a popular pick to win or finish in the top three of the Big Ten this year, and early on it was looking like that was a smart vote. Matt Painter’s squad started the year 5-1 with the only loss coming by three points to the best team in the country, Villanova. They suffered another close defeat on the road at Louisville but glided their way through the rest of their non-conference slate to start Big Ten play at 11-2. The Boilers took a tough OT loss at home to Minnesota but beat Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin to propel themselves to a 14-3 record to start off the conference season. Then they played the Hawkeyes for the second time in as many weeks and lost by five in a controversial road loss. So while Purdue is still a strong NCAA tournament team, they’ve shown some cracks in the armor with losses to Iowa and Minnesota.

The Boilers’ biggest weapon is 6-foot-9 sophomore Caleb Swanigan, whose numbers this season are simply ridiculous. Not only do they boast Swanigan, but fellow center Isaac Haas, who stands five inches taller than his counterpart, also averages double-digit points per game. And when their inside game isn’t working, they’ve got weapons that can shoot lights out from behind the arc too. Junior guard Dakota Mathias is shooting nearly 50 percent from three, while P.J. Thompson and Ryan Cline are also knocking down over 40 percent of their threes. Purdue has a lot of weapons and when they get clicking, look out. The Illini will need to bring their A+ game to spring the road upset.

Numbers to Know

40-13

That’s Purdue’s record since the start of last season, which is good for the 11th-best record during that span. They’ve been ranked in the AP Top 25 in each of the last 30 polls, which is good for seventh-longest streak in the country. They’ve also scored at least 75 points in ten of their last eleven games (the one game they didn’t was also a win, though). It’s fair to say the Boilermakers have been rolling as of late, and after a few mediocre seasons and whisperings of a hot seat for Matt Painter, Purdue has turned it around to be one of the strongest teams in the Big Ten in the past few seasons.

47

That’s the difference in KenPom’s rankings of Purdue and Illinois. The Boilermakers, who sit at 18th overall, are 47 spots higher than the Illini, who currently rank 65th in the nation. KenPom allows you to chart how teams’ ratings have changed throughout the course of the season. Illinois’ ranking is, well...

A rollercoaster ride. Purdue and Illinois’ rankings were very similar at the start of the season, but since then the teams have gone on very different paths. The Illini’s rating has been as low as 85, but recently peaked as high as 58th. The Boilermakers, on the other hand, have been a pretty consistent team this season, with their highest rating being 14th but now dropping four spots to 18th.

3-4

That’s Illinois’ record against Purdue with John Groce at the helm. While that may seem like an underwhelming record, keep in mind that last year the Illini pulled off an upset win over Purdue at the State Farm Center, and two years ago they also handed the Boilers a loss in Champaign. Their only regular season loss to Purdue in the past two seasons came by five points in West Lafayette two years ago, when Rayvonte Rice and the Illini were up by as many as twenty before eventually dropping a tough game. So while the record may not show it, a 2-1 mark (and five points away from a 3-0 mark) against Purdue since the start of the 2015-16 season means that the Illini will hopefully be ready to play at tip-off in Mackey Arena.

Bonus number: 999

That’s how many losses Purdue has suffered in its program’s history. That means that if Illinois can pull off the upset this Tuesday, they will be handing the Boilermakers their 1,000th loss all-time.

Keys to the Game

1. Try to contain Swanigan

It’s going to be impossible to stop All-Big Ten forward Caleb Swanigan entirely. So what the Illini will need to do is contain him as best they can. He’s averaging a double-double (18 points, 13 boards) and also picks up three assists and one block per game. There’s no way to shut down that strong of a paint presence. But if the Illini can shift their focus to locking down the paint and slowing down Swanigan as often as possible, I’m sure Groce would be much more willing to let Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson beat them from behind the arc. Try and get Swanigan in foul trouble early on and eliminate Purdue’s biggest threat in the paint, and see what happens. That’s Illinois’ best chance to spring the upset.

2. Forget Maryland

There’s no sugarcoating that loss to Maryland this past weekend: it sucked. After leading by as many as eleven points, the Illini hit a wall on offense in the second half and completely collapsed against the Terps. That means Maryland won both games against Illinois this season and now they’re below .500 again in the Big Ten standings. Hopefully no Illini players are reading this, because that’s the last thing they should be thinking about right now. Forget the crushing loss and Maryland sweep. Forget the conference standings (which are ridiculous, by the way).

Raise your hand if you had Northwestern, Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota in the top half of the Big Ten standings, you liar. As you can see above, if the orange and blue aren’t careful this season could slip away from them, so they need to look at this road game in a vacuum. It’s the old coaching cliche, but they need to just focus on the game in front of them. The Illini are “on to Purdue.” They’re capable of playing really well, we’ve seen it just six days ago against Michigan. Don’t ride any negative momentum from the Maryland game and Illinois’ chances of coming out of Mackey with a victory go up immensely.

3. Somebody needs to go off

In games like these, teams like Illinois need someone to have a special night in order to pull out a win. On the road, in a tough environment, against a ranked team, coming off a potentially season-crushing loss at home. That’s not a good formula for how to beat Purdue. In cases like these, the Illini will need someone to go off and have a truly special performance to spring the upset. Maybe Malcolm Hill will have a Brandon Paul-like performance. Or maybe Jalen Coleman-Lands will break the Illinois record for three-pointers made in a single game. Whatever the case may be, the Illini will be looking for a truly special night from one of their best players if they want to move to 3-3 in Big Ten play.

Projected Starting Lineups

Purdue Boilermakers
  1. P.J. Thompson (7.6 PPG, 3.6 APG)
  2. Dakota Mathias (9.8 PPG, 4.1 APG)
  3. Carsen Edwards (10.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG)
  4. Vince Edwards (12.0 PPG, 5.1 RPG)
  5. Caleb Swanigan (18.2 PPG, 12.6 RPG)
Illinois Fighting Illini
  1. Tracy Abrams (10.5 PPG, 2.6 APG)
  2. Jalen Coleman-Lands (9.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG)
  3. Malcolm Hill (18.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG)
  4. Leron Black (9.9 PPG, 6.8 RPG)
  5. Maverick Morgan (9.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG)

TCR Prediction

This is going to be a really tough game to win. The Illini, while having a much stronger paint presence this year, don’t match up that well against Swanigan and Haas. Maverick Morgan has been great, but he can’t guard both of them at once. Mike Thorne Jr, who has played zero minutes in the past two games combined, may have to log some playing time simply because of his size. The Illini will need to be shooting lights out from behind the arc if they want to stay in this game, and also be able to handle Purdue’s inside game. Either that or Malcolm Hill is going to need to score 50 points, as mentioned above. I don’t think either of those things will happen on the road in Mackey Arena, and quite frankly I’m struggling to see how this game will even remain close.

Purdue 82, Illinois 67