Illinois coach Bruce Weber says his team defeated Minnesota because it played hard, something missing the last few weeks. He insists the Illini repeat that performance to hold serve at home against a strong and talented Purdue squad.
"It's a difficult task at hand. One they guard, they play so hard. Purdue plays, from one to eight or nine, as hard as anybody in the country. We're gonna have to match that.
"And then you have two of the best players in the country in JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore. It's pretty impressive how good they are. Johnson has really gotten better, and E'Twaun is deceptive and hard to guard because he can go inside and outside, leaks through the lane and gets to the basket.
"Another thing, E'Twaun's assists to turnovers is phenomenal from where he came. In high school, passing wasn't one of the things he looked to. And he's 42 to 16 assists to turnovers (in the Big 10)."
Johnson (6'-10", 221) leads the team with 20.6 points and 7.6 rebounds a game. He is dangerous out to the three point line, hitting over half his shots. He also has 54 blocks on the season. Moore (6'-4", 191) is close behind at 17.8 points a game, hitting 40% on threes while handing out 79 assists and being credited with 33 steals.
The rest of the Boilermaker team is composed of role players. But they can relax and play their games with confidence knowing their two superstars can bail them out if they fail. They make plays they probably wouldn't make otherwise. And they all play aggressive defense.
Junior point guard Lewis Jackson (5'-9", 165) has picked up his offense, averaging 7 points on .546 shooting. He also leads PU with 89 assists. Junior Ryne Smith (6'-3", 190) is hitting 48% of threes and comes in with 6.5 points each game.
The fifth starter varies from game to game. Sophomores Kelsey Barlow (6'-5", 193) and D.J. Byrd (6'-5", 225) have received most of the starts. Sophomore John Hart (6'-2", 196) is rounding into shape after an injury. He was an assassin off the bench for Purdue at Illinois last year. Freshmen Terone Johnson (6'-2", 211) and Travis Carroll (6'-9", 230) plus sophomore Patrick Bade (6'-8", 229) also see playing time.
Weber believes one key to defending Purdue is to control Matt Painter's role players.
"I think the key to their team is guys like Ryne Smith. With (Darius) Morgan at Michigan and (Jeff) Brooks at Penn State, they're the three most improved players in the league.
"But all the other guys that he has, whether it's Lewis Jackson or Kelsey Barlow, D.J. Byrd, they come in and play hard. He's been able to get a mixture of guys that have taken what he wants and are executing. That's why they're having that success."
Jackson is from Decatur and plays especially hard against his home state school. He gets into people's faces defensively and breaks them down offensively. He has also made big improvements in his shooting accuracy.
"He's actually 5 for 7 in the league from three. He hasn't shot a lot, but I think he had three in one game. So he's more of an offensive threat. He's playing with a lot more confidence. He's a junior, and Matt's given him a little more leeway.
"I think all the guys are playing with a lot more confidence. Obviously, the ball's got to go through Johnson and Moore, but the other guys are not afraid to jump up and shoot a shot. We can't have Johnson and Moore go for 30 each, but we've got to do a solid job on them and make sure the other guys don't have huge games."
Illinois created a difficult schedule to prepare for the rigors of the Big 10 and beyond. It produced some good wins but also some tough losses. Meanwhile, Purdue played a weaker nonconference schedule. Weber says the schedule helped Painter create depth.
"Matt was a little worried his nonconference schedule might hurt him, but what it really did was allow him to play a lot of guys a lot of minutes and get a lot of confidence. It's really paid dividends. That and last year when (Robbie) Hummel went down they did a great job in the NCAA Tournament. Whether it was Byrd or Smith or whomever, they got their feet wet. And it continued into this year."
When on the court, Mike Tisdale will be assigned the task of guarding Johnson. Having played against him numerous times, he has a good feel for Johnson's game.
"Johnson is a tough matchup. He's quick, he can shoot the ball from just about anywhere. Pressure's gonna be a big thing; being physical is gonna be important. The other guys are good scorers, so hopefully we can match up. I think we're ready for it. It's gonna be who plays harder and who wants it more."
Mike Davis will also have to defend the Purdue postman at times. He was asked what makes Johnson so effective.
"You can't block his shot. He has a high release like Kevin Garnett. He's pretty agile to be so big. He can run the floor, he can shoot threes. Me, Tis (Tisdale) and Meyers (Leonard) have to do a good job of slowing him down. He's got to guard us also. Maybe we can get him in foul trouble and get him tired."
"I'll be defending E'Twaun Moore the most, and Lewis Jackson," Richardson states. "I'll have the job of stopping the smallest player on the court, and he's pretty fast. He gets in the lane, jump-stops and does all the things he needs to do for his team to win."
"It's probably gonna be me and D.J. switching off on E'Twaun Moore," Paul explains. "D.J. is a great defender. When he gets tired, I'll get on him, and vice versa. With everybody else, I just want to disrupt their offense."
Of course, the Illini must also play effectively on the offensive end to counter Purdue pressure. It starts with point guard. Demetri McCamey did not start at Minnesota. Will Weber continue with the new lineup?
"The biggest thing is, we've got to hold everybody accountable to play hard. Whether they start, if they're not playing hard we've got to take them out. Make sure all our guys 1 through 8 play hard."
If McCamey wishes to start, he will need to please both the coaching staff and the players. According to Richardson, it appears the players had a say in determining who started.
"We talked about the evaluation sheet, who we thought was playing the hardest. Coach selected who we picked. It was basically the best defensive players on the team."
Weber supported that description.
"Demetri was called out by our staff, by our players to step up his level of intensity. He responded."
In fact, McCamey actually dove across the floor in a steal attempt. It surprised Illini fans if not the head coach.
"It's not like he's never done it before. He did it in front of our bench in one home game. The other play (I liked) was where he came from the weakside, shot the gap, got the steal and got the layup.
"His first basket was a put-back. We're wondering if it's his first put-back ever. Those are effort things that go a long way. It was an important play because it showed he responded to his teammates and to our staff."
If McCamey continues that level of intensity, he will play major minutes whether he starts or not. Now, will he be able to counteract Purdue's on-ball defense?
"They'll throw a lot of people at him," Weber explains. "Barlow will guard him, Jackson will guard him. Ryne Smith was guarding (Blake) Hoffarber in the film. I think that's a kid that's really taken some pride and has some toughness. You've got a lot of guys that can go at it, and I'm sure they'll keep rotating people.
"Brandon has done better and better, so we can relieve some pressure on Demetri. I'm not afraid when Brandon brings the ball up the court now. That helps. Not only can we rest him, but also within plays Brandon can bring the ball up, and he doesn't have to fight that constant contact as he brings up the ball."
Bill Cole says the Illini must fight fire with fire.
"They're a very physical team, a very active team on defense. The biggest thing you've got to worry about with them is not being intimidated and take it to them. I think if we play as hard as we did the other night we'll be all right."
Whether the Illini have turned a corner on their season, Weber at least saw a lot to like at Minnesota. They didn't shoot well, but their aggressiveness made up for it.
"I thought it was great. We've won pretty and looked really good in a lot of our victories. We finally found a way to get an ugly win. To me, it's the prettiest of the year because we were able to adjust and learn how to fight and make plays when it counted.
"They made runs at us in the first half, they made runs in the second half. We didn't fold, we didn't break down defensively. It was tough to deal with them on the boards, but we got enough of them when it counted."
That was the kind of team Weber expected when the season began. He reflects on what might have been and what still could be.
"We're good enough, we've got enough talent, we shoot well enough if guys make the commitment to play hard. It's just sad because at the beginning of the year, I thought we were all over the place. We were aggressive, we were on the floor. We had an edge, but we lost the edge. Now hopefully we can get it back at a great time, down to the finish."
That's what the Illinois players want also. Talk is cheap, but they are saying the right things.
"We can't be content with (the win at Minnesota)," Tisdale reminds. "This team is notorious for being content with one win. It was a good one, but we've got to move forward and get another one."
"It's real big," Paul adds. "I felt like last year we let Purdue off the hook. I think this year we have a really good chance if we keep up our intensity."
"We can't get too high off that road win. We're very excited about winning that game, but we've got to come back and protect home court."
Cole still envisions a great finish to the season, but the Illini must take one game at a time.
"Everybody was so upset with the losses because we felt like we could do so much better. We played our butts off the other night. If we do that every night, I feel we can compete with anyone in the country."
Purdue is a tremendous team, but Weber sees advantages if the Illini continue to play aggressively.
"You've got CBS, you've got the home crowd, and we've played pretty well at home. Hopefully we can play well and play hard and find a way to get a victory."