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Know Your Opponent: Purdue Boilermakers

The Illini look to start the new year off on the right foot.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday night, Illinois hosts Purdue for a classic Big Ten matchup at State Farm Center. The Illini are riding a two-game winning streak, and they will look to keep the good times rolling in the first game of the new year.

Last Season

Last season, Illinois steamrolled the Boilermakers not once, but twice. A 63-37 trouncing at home kicked off the Illini’s magical seven-game winning streak, and a 79-62 win in West Lafayette came just two weeks later. These may have been Illinois’ two best-played games all season, and the Illini really seemed to have Purdue’s number.

Alan Griffin starred in the first meeting, with 16 points and 12 rebounds off the bench. No Boilermakers reached double figures in what was the Illini’s best defensive effort in years.

Illinois got multiple big performances the second time around, with Kofi Cockburn (22 points, 15 rebounds) and Ayo Dosunmu (18 points, 11 assists) both posting double-doubles. Trent Frazier added 21 points as the Illini scored 50 in the second half to put Purdue away.

Purdue ended up finishing with a disappointing 16-15 (9-11) record last year, and it was on the outside looking in when the NCAA Tournament was cancelled. It’s worth noting though that the Boilers were better than their record, as they ranked 24th on KenPom despite their 15 losses.

Players to Watch

Purdue returns its top three scorers from last season, but the Boilermakers aren’t nearly as good as that would imply. Just about everyone else in the rotation is gone, either graduating or transferring away. Even so, Matt Painter still has a solid roster led by junior big man Trevion Williams.

Williams leads Purdue in both scoring (14.1 points per game) and rebounding (9.7 rebounds), and he will be tasked with defending Kofi Cockburn in the paint. The Boilermakers have another scoring threat in junior guard Sasha Stefanovic, who is shooting 50% (31-62) from behind the arc this season. His 31 threes lead the Big Ten.

The last of the returning starters is Eric Hunter. Hunter missed Purdue’s first four games with an injury, but he has averaged 12.3 points per game since returning to the lineup.

One last player to note is freshman Zach Edey. He may not be Purdue’s best player, but he is certainly its most interesting. Standing at 7-foot-4, Edey is the latest in Purdue’s line of incredibly tall centers. He should come off the bench to spell Trevion Williams, but don’t be surprised when you see that Kofi suddenly isn’t the tallest player on the court.

What to Expect

There’s really no way around it: Illinois is just the better team in this matchup. The Illini are better than Purdue in each of the Four Factors on both sides of the ball except for defensive turnover percentage. Don’t get me wrong, Purdue is a legitimately good team. Most teams in the Big Ten are this year. But a loss to the Boilers would be a disappointing way to open 2021.

I do think there are a couple ways that Purdue can win this game though. The first is just to make its threes. Stefanovic is as good of a shooter as they come, and Brandon Newman and Isaiah Thompson are each shooting over 40% from deep as well. If the Boilermakers get a couple of those guys hot from three, they have a real chance to pull off the upset.

Purdue can also give itself a shot at winning if it manages to slow the game down. Illinois plays at the 43rd-fastest pace in the country, but Purdue’s tempo ranks just 292nd. We’ve seen a couple games — the Indiana and Baylor games come to mind — where Illinois struggles to create offense in the half court when its opponent manages to take away transition opportunities. It may not be enough to win, but Purdue can at least keep itself in the game if it slows the game down to a pace it’s more comfortable with.

Even so, I just have a hard time seeing Purdue winning this game, and I expect Illinois to start the new year off with a victory.

Prediction: Illinois 80, Purdue 70