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Don’t be shocked when Illinois beats No. 1 Purdue

This isn’t last year’s Illini squad.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois
BU says we’ll see you at Mackey Friday night.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Well, Illinois Land.

Here. We. Go.

No. 9 Illinois (No. 8 KenPom) basketball will be featured in the national game of week, traveling to West Lafayette to take on the No. 1 team in the AP Poll, the Purdue Boilermakers (No. 2 KenPom) and 7-foot-4 Zach Edey.

Syndication: Journal-Courier
Reigning National Player of the Year Zach Edey looks over a TRIPLE team in the game last year, a close Purdue win after an Illini fake rally in the second half.
Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Quick team profile comparison for the matchup.

  • Purdue: No. 2 in Offensive Efficiency (14th in 3P% at 38.9%), No. 6 in Defensive Efficiency (No. 16 in 3P% on defense at 28.1%)
  • Illinois: No. 12 in Offensive Efficiency (No. 13 in 2P% at 57.9%), No. 18 in Defensive Efficiency (No.2 in 2P% at 40.6%)
  • KenPom Spread: 5.92 points on a neutral court

I’ll break down the specific challenges that Illinois brings to Purdue in a minute.

Let’s take a look at the last time the program enjoyed similar circumstances.

This is the game that Illinois fans have been waiting on figuratively — if not literally — since the last time Illinois trotted out an elite team to face an elite opponent in a huge national spotlight game.

The last time Underwood and the University of Illinois found themselves in a similar position, they were ranked No. 4 visiting the No. 2 Michigan Wolverines on March 2, 2021.

Guys. Fake cardboard cutout fans in this pic.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan
Frazier goes to the bucket for two of his game-high 22 points in the road win.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The game was not close, as the Illini hammered Juwan Howard and Michigan by 23 points, in a game in front of literally no fans. Final score was 76-53.

Despite that beatdown and winning the subsequent Big Ten Tournament, Illinois famously fell in the second round of the NCAA Tournament that year.

That game was the supposed litmus test to see how the Illini would fair in the post-season that year.

Underwood and his squad has had, shall we say, limited success in the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois
Uber versatile wings Coleman Hawkins and Quincy Guerrier are matchup nightmares, on both ends of the court. They each possess NBA size, skill and length - with three point range to match.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Illini fans and college basketball analysts are eagerly waiting to see what the Illini bring to the table on the road in a hostile environment. If the Illini can steal a win on the road against the Boilers, the confidence that it brings could lead to more success this March.

Or, maybe the result of this game unto itself is not that important, but what the game represents from a national perspective on this year’s Illini could go a long way in potential seeding for the tournament.

To be clear: Underwood, his team, and Illini fans are in no way seeking or accepting moral victories.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois
This guy knows what I’m talking about.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

All of those groups expect a win. Being competitive is not the standard.

At time of writing, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Illini as a No. 3 seed facing, of all programs, former head coach John Groce and No. 14 Akron.

Although the circumstances are similar from a ranking perspective, this game against this Purdue team in front of those fans will not be an experience that mirrors in game in Ann Arbor in any way.

Here’s why I say that this game is an independent beast.

Purdue and Painter have cultivated arguably the best homecourt atmosphere in not only the Big Ten, but anywhere in the country.

Mackey Arena will be sold out — 14,240 fans — with 98% of them wearing black and attempting to Boiler Up. It’s going to be electric!

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Underwood will have the troops ready for battle.
Hannah Mattix/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

As mentioned in a caption above, Purdue HBC Matt Painter possesses the biggest of all matchup nightmares, Zach Edey.

Edey is the reigning, defending, undisputed National Player of the Year averaging 23.1 and 10.3 rebounds. He’s also dishing out 1.6 assists per game.

At this point, the 2024 National Player of the Year race is down to one horse.

Let’s call Edey “Secretariat”.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois
Hawkins has added “hanging on rims” to his recent repertoire. He’s also shooting 35.4% from behind the arc.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

One caveat to that obvious prediction is this is a 40-minute basketball game and none of the awards and accomplishments past or present mean a damn thing.

Edey is likely going to get his 25 and 10 without incident.

The most interesting facet of this game by a mile is how Painter and Purdue decide to defend the versatile wings Coleman Hawkins (6-foot-10 and 225 pounds) and Quincy Guerrier (6-foot-8 and 230 pounds).

Purdue’s front court also features these players to assist Edey:

  • Trey Kauffman-Renn (6-foot-9 and 230 pounds): 17.3 minutes, 7.9 points and 4.9 rebounds
  • Caleb Furst (6-foot-9 and 225 pounds): 14.3 points, 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds
  • Mason Gillis (6-foot-6 and 225 pounds): 16.2 minutes, 5.5 points and 3.6 rebounds

Gillis could be considered a guard more than the other two, but these are the most likely candidates to guard the duo of Hawkins and Guerrier.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Purdue
Painter and Underwood exchange a cordial handshake before a game in 2022. They have great respect for each other.
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Edey (7-foot-4 and 300 pounds) plays 29.4 minutes a game. That will likely be the minimum he plays for this contest. That obviously means he has to play that many minutes or more on defense.

Painter has no choice but to play Edey on either Hawkins or Guerrier.

My money would be on Edey guarding Guerrier since he has more of an ability to rip drive to the bucket and/or mid-post options.

Hawkins spends the vast majority of his time around the perimeter, mostly in the middle third of the court. As a secondary facilitator, Kauffman-Renn or Gillis are likely present the more difficult challenge for Hawkins based on what he wants to accomplish on offense.

Much like Illinois doesn’t have an ideal option for guarding Edey, Purdue does not match up well in the front court on defense.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois
Rodgers slashes to the bucket for a hoop in the 30-point route of Northwestern.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

We haven’t even discussed Illinois point guard Ty Rodgers (6-foot-6 and 210 pounds) and guard Marcus Domask (6-foot-6 and 215 pounds).

Their size and strength will pose a challenge for the smaller, shiftier guards that Purde has in Braden Smith (6-foot and 175 pounds) and Fletcher Loyer (6-foot-4 and 180 pounds).

Domask is coming off his second nuclear performance of the year going for 32 against Northwestern this week and 33 against FAU at the Garden.

I’m certainly not predicting that Domask goes for 30+ plus on the road against Purdue.

The difference is, now opponents know if Domask can get to his spots he can literally torch you in the midrange and getting to the line, where he shoots 87.5% on the year.

The SIU transfer is now averaging 13.2 with 4.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists and a PER of 15.5.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois
Domask swishes a mid-range babyhook on Northwestern at State Farm Center earlier this week.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

With All-American guard Terrence Shannon, Jr. indefinitely suspended, Domask seemingly has taken the role as the first option on offense.

This would be a season-altering and season-defining win for the Illini in West Lafayette.

With a win, Illinois would likely vault into the Top 5 in the AP Poll, a place they haven’t been since finishing No. 2 in the final AP Poll in 2021.

My Prediction: Illinois wins 80-78.

Guerrier and Hawkins combine for 35 combined points 21 rebounds. Domask gets 16 and 7. Luke Goode makes 3 threes. Edey gets 28 and 14, but the guards of Purdue struggle against the size of the Illinois backcourt.

Please take the Scientific Poll.

Poll

How confident are you in Illinois winning on the road at Purdue?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    5 - Already placed my large wager
    (55 votes)
  • 34%
    4 - If Illinois continues to shoot the ball well, they’ll win
    (635 votes)
  • 23%
    3 - Hoping for a win
    (438 votes)
  • 19%
    2 - They need to not get blown out
    (364 votes)
  • 19%
    1 - They have no shot
    (370 votes)
1862 votes total Vote Now

This is big-time college basketball. This is Illinois mattering. This is a Top 10 victory.

This is Illinois basketball.