Looking for upset, Illini travel to No. 4 Purdue

After riding high on a five-game winning streak, the Fighting Illini came back to earth on Sunday, suffering a blowout loss to then-No. 13 Ohio State at the Assembly Hall.

Following the loss, Illinois (17-9, 9-4 Big Ten) had a whole week to think about it. From the end of the game Sunday until practice resumed Tuesday, the team was off from basketball altogether.

But freshman forward Tyler Griffey wasn’t content to take an off day. Instead, he gathered up teammates and headed to Ubben Basketball Complex anyway.

“We had the Monday off, but everybody was (at Ubben) getting shots up, going through workouts on our own,” Griffey said. “And then we’ve got individuals (Wednesday), practice (Tuesday), so it’s kind of a recovery week. But at the same time, we can’t take any days off. We got to get better. We’ve got things to improve on.”

Sunday’s loss left the Illini in a fight to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive, but the competition isn’t getting any easier with a showdown at No. 4 Purdue (22-3, 10-3) on the docket for Saturday.

The postseason implications of the Purdue matchup aren’t lost on junior forward Mike Davis.

“It’s going to be really big. I think if we win this game, we still have a chance to win the Big Ten championship,” Davis said. “We’re fighting for our lives, still a tournament berth. To beat a top-five team will definitely help our chance to make the tournament.”

Purdue stumbled into the Assembly Hall with a three-game losing streak on Jan. 19 but ended its streak in Champaign, defeating Illinois, 84-78. The Boilermakers haven’t looked back since, winning every contest since to bring an eight-game winning streak into Saturday’s contest in West Lafayette, Ind.

In the last meeting between the teams, head coach Bruce Weber could hear Purdue head coach Matt Painter two locker rooms away at halftime. Weber said the Boilermakers lived up to that advice in the second half of the contest in Champaign and have been following it ever since.

“I think the point he really emphasized, we could hear him yelling, ‘You got to get it inside. To heck the 3-pointers.’ And it seems like they’ve, since that point they’ve recognized get it in to (JaJuan) Johnson,” Weber said. “They’ve also posted up E’Twaun Moore and Robbie (Hummel) a little bit at times. They’ve limited some of their 3-point shooting.”

The Boilermaker offense is powered by a trio of juniors averaging double-digit scoring in guard Moore, forward/center Johnson and forward Hummel. Moore leads with way, averaging 17.2 points a game while Hummel and Johnson average just more 15 points to go along with 7.0 rebounds apiece.

But it will take more than just containing those three for the Illini to get the win. Illinois will also have to avoid surprises like redshirt freshman guard John Hart, who came off the bench to score 14 points for Purdue in the teams’ last meeting.

“(We have to) stop JaJaun Johnson and Robbie Hummel,” Griffey said. “We can’t let John Hart go off again. He wasn’t even on our scouting report, wasn’t even in the books. We can’t have anything like that happen.

“But if we just take care of our own stuff, take care of our business and play well, play hard, we should come out of there with a ‘W,.’”

After the win at Wisconsin, Weber wasn’t so sure this bye week would be a good thing for his team. Now, with Illinois sitting in a tie for third in the Big Ten — a game and a half behind first-place Michigan State — Weber is hoping the rest will be just what his squad needs to make a push in the final stretch.

“(We) didn’t play at a very high level against Ohio State, so maybe that’s the loss, a little bit of hungriness here, a little bit of freshness, get away from it all,” Weber said. “And we’ve got a big stretch run here the last three weeks, and hopefully it’ll bring some freshness to our guys and we can perform well.”

More than just a good performance, junior center Mike Tisdale is focused on a good finish.

“Last year we had a heck of a season and we didn’t finish it like we wanted to,” Tisdale said. “So, you know, we got to be prepared to finish out the whole thing.”