Illini looking to turn the tide in Purdue series

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill attempts to defend Indiana’s James Blackmon, Jr., during the game against Indiana at State Farm Center on Sunday. The Illini lost 80-74.

Sunday’s basketball game between Illinois and Indiana featured long stretches of exciting basketball, with free-flowing offenses and not much quality defense.

Expect Wednesday’s matchup between Purdue and Illinois to play out in opposite fashion.

The Hoosiers had quick, athletic players who were all capable of filling it up from long range. But they had virtually no size in their frontcourt. John Groce’s Illini will get a different look Wednesday, as Purdue brings size and strength to State Farm Center.

If history is any indication, the Boilermakers will attempt to play stifling perimeter defense and get away with as much hand-checking as possible. They’ll turn the game into 40 minutes of gritty, grind-it-out play, which won’t be easy on the eyes of your average fan.

This strategy has worked well against Illinois in Matt Painter’s time at Purdue. The Boilers have won nine of their last 10 games against the Illini, including four of their last five in Champaign. They’ve owned Illinois the past decade, and Painter is 12-5 against the Illini in his career.

Every year, I’m guilty of foolishly penciling in Purdue as a “W” on the schedule before the season even starts, and every year Purdue punks Illinois. I’ve finally learned my lesson, and am certainly not comfortable predicting an Illini win Wednesday.

I might not be writing with confidence, but that doesn’t mean I don’t expect the Illini to play with confidence. Their play was poised and composed against Indiana until the final two minutes of the game. They withstood multiple Hoosier runs and hit back with scoring bursts of their own, even when a second-half deficit reached double digits. Even though Illinois didn’t hold on for the win, it was an overall encouraging performance out of a team missing its best player.

In Rayvonte Rice’s absence, sophomore guard Kendrick Nunn has stood tallest, averaging 17 points over his last four games. That includes a 25-point performance against Nebraska and a 24-point showing against Indiana; he shot 17-of-26 overall and 10-of-17 from three during those two contest. It’s hard to even tweet about Nunn these days without using the fire emoji.

Malcolm Hill has also been consistently good, averaging 15.5 points and 5.3 boards since Rice’s Jan. 5 hand injury. The Illini will have to continue to rely on Hill and Nunn to provide the brunt of the scoring until Rice’s return, and the sophomore duo will have to overcome Purdue’s pesky defense for Illinois to come out on top.

Senior Ahmad Starks and freshman Leron Black both recorded their most impactful games in Illini uniforms Sunday, with Starks scoring 19 points and Black recording eight points and nine rebounds. While those performances were great off the bench, the starters they subbed for (Aaron Cosby and Nnanna Egwu) both went scoreless. The Illini need production from their starters as well, or solid showings from the bench will go to waste.

The challenge for Illinois will be containing Purdue’s massive front line. Centers A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas are both seven feet tall, and players like Raphael Davis and Kendall Stephens (6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6, respectively) will stretch an Illini team that essentially starts four guards. Groce will have to get creative on defense, and don’t be surprised to see more zone than usual to compensate for size mismatches.

The Purdue basketball program has declined in the last several years under Painter, even if the results against the Illini don’t reflect it. Though Painter has a scrappy team this year, the Boilers are probably not making the NCAA tournament. If Illinois is going to get back to the level that Groce and fans aspire to reach (regularly making the NCAA tournament), Purdue is a team the Illini need to consistently beat.

Illinois’ NCAA tournament hopes for this season have taken a hit, but they’re still alive. A home loss to Purdue would put them on life support.

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.