This is the toughest matchup left for the Illini. It's not a particularly good one either.
Purdue has been one of the best in the Big Ten since Matt Painter took over in 2005. That hasn't changed this year.
The Boilermakers have player mismatches all over the court, so it will take a total team effort for Illinois to keep the game close and surprise Purdue.
Carsen Edwards is the face of Purdue Basketball right now. He's one of the toughest, most complete point guards Illinois has faced all year. A balanced scoring threat who defends just as well, Edwards is not a welcome sight for a team smarting after their home loss to Penn State last Saturday.
If you don't remember, Edwards lit up the Illini to the tune of 40 points on 11-of-19 shooting in their last meeting, a 93-86 victory at SFC last February.
He was the smart pick for preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, and for good reason. He's a sharpshooter who can snipe teams in a variety of ways.
Guarding him will be a challenge, but one thing the Illini have done well recently is hone in the opposition's best player and get under their skin for 40 minutes. Ethan Happ and Cassius Winston can attest to that.
It starts with Andres Feliz. Get him going and he is a problem for opposing guards. Rotate him heavily and lock him on Edwards until he won't let go. Use Ayo Dosunmu's long arms and Trent Frazier's tenacity and clog the passing lanes. Bother people. That's the name of the game for Illinois, defensively. Do what you did against Ohio State and Michigan State.
Not what you did against Penn State. Illinois did not play well against a Nittany Lions squad that has picked up some momentum in recent weeks. They played free and easy and looked like the team playing for something. Illinois has to get that effort back up to where they were two weeks ago.
Not to question their effort, of course, because these players have certainly turned it around in recent months. But the Illini can't afford another sluggish start against a top-two team in the Big Ten on the road, or they will get buried.
Speaking of, the recent run of success (Penn State notwithstanding) was due largely to fast starts offensively. Getting certain players going early has helped with finishing games late.
If Illinois can keep up the pace from the outset and challenge Purdue early, this game will be a lot closer late, and certain players like Ayo and Giorgi have played their best basketball late in crunch time. If we can get to that point against Purdue, we'll have a good shot at the upset.
In Haarms Way
Now for the elephant in the court. Edwards is a terrifying scoring threat, but the reason Purdue looks so intimidating for Illinois is Matt Haarms. The 7-foot-3, 250-pound sophomore from the Netherlands is as good of a big man as we've seen all year.
We have not fared exceptionally well against legitimate big men. Bruno Fernando looked solid. Jordan Murphy bullied them. Lamar Stevens had a career day against the defensive front court.
That's not to say he's infallible, but it will take a lot of Giorgi and his energy to withstand the length Purdue presents down low. Rebounding will be an issue.
The Illini need to crash the glass with their guards to stand a chance. That means Aaron Jordan, Feliz and Kipper Nichols all need to contribute a little to a lot to impact the defense. Not allowing second-chance points will be critical to Illinois' success or failure on Wednesday.
Personally, this smells like the potential for Illinois' to sneakily compete and possibly pull off the upset. Or they could get creamed by 30. It all depends on which Illini team shows up. Intensity and offensive tempo will be key.
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