Illinois travels to West Lafayette Tuesday to take on a Purdue team that dominated them physically at the Assembly Hall recently. The Boilermakers have two superstars in JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, and they have a stable of hard-working role players who play tough defense and contribute in a variety of ways. The odds makers give them a big edge in the matchup.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber sings their praises.
"Some people might say Purdue is playing as well as anybody in the league. It's hard to say they're playing better than Ohio State. But they just beat them a week or so ago, and they've got two of the best players in the country who are playing at a high level.
"Obviously, E'Twaun and JaJuan are tremendous offensive players and shoot the ball well. If you really study their other guys, they're not great shooters. But if you give them so many opportunities, that's when those guys step up and make the plays, make the shots.
"Lewis Jackson has done a real nice job for them. He gives them another nice little offensive threat. But I still think the key to their team is all the other guys. They chip in with rebounds, loose balls, a basket here and there. When you add them all up, it adds up to victory for the team."
Jackson is the diminutive point guard from Decatur who has great quickness. He is a disruptive force on the defensive end and can penetrate for layups and dish-offs. And Weber says he is beginning to pick up his shooting, a past weakness.
"He's playing more confident. One, he's made some shots, so you've got to guard him a little closer. When you have good weapons around you, and when you have Johnson set the ball screen, and he is mobile and can dive to the basket and shoot a three, and then when you have E'Twaun on the wing, it really helps him.
"He's making a lot better decisions, and then when he jumps up and makes a shot, it makes him really tough to deal with. They've won six in a row and 7 of 8, so they've gotten into a run. He's definitely been a key part of that.
"He's shooting 52%. A lot of them are layups, but the main thing he's up to 35% from three. He wasn't anywhere near that last year. And the other thing, he goes to the free throw line and makes free throws at a 70% clip. He gets there a lot because he puts you in binds with the ball screen with his quickness."
Purdue can score against anyone. But it is their in-your-face defense that intimidates and disrupts. Weber says to win, you have to be even stronger mentally and physically.
"Last time they set the tone of the game. It's gonna to be important that we are the aggressor and play with confidence, to take games to people. It will be a big factor going to Purdue to play strong, to deal with their energy level. They pick it up, and you have to match that if you're gonna have any chance.
"You have to go in with that battle mindset that you've just got to keep battling and fighting and maintain that energy. You have to play strong on the offensive end because they pick it up defensively. They broke Michigan State's spirit by wearing them down and getting easy baskets."
Winning at Purdue is not impossible, just improbable. Weber was reminded how the Illini won in Mackey Arena two years ago.
"We played pretty well there last year too. Even here a couple weeks ago, we cut it to six and take a quick shot. Then Demetri (McCamey) misses a dunk and Billy Cole misses a layup. If we could have kept our poise and maintained, we could have put a little pressure on them."
Mike Tisdale and the other seniors remember winning at Purdue. Of course, it wasn't on Senior night where emotions will run high as Boilermaker faithful say goodbye to Johnson and Moore.
"It's tough, but we've got seniors too who hopefully want to win the game. I've won there before, and I would love to do it again."
McCamey is forewarned.
"They've been not only one of the top teams in the Big 10, but in the country. I don't know if they've lost any at home. They're real tough, and it's Senior Day there for JaJuan and E'Twaun, so I know they're gonna play 110%. We have to match or even beat their intensity.
We have to go on the road and win a road game against top competition, something we haven't done this year."
The Boilermakers alternated defenders on McCamey in Champaign. They never let him breathe, let alone make open shots. He knows to expect a tag team of defenders shadowing him.
"Purdue plays their defense crazy. They play Jackson, and then another guy comes in, and then another guy comes in. They try to keep fresh bodies on me. But at the same time, I've just got to play well and make shots this time around. We need this win, not just for the NCAA but for our confidence as well."
Confidence. It is such a simple word, and yet Weber says the biggest thing his seniors have lacked throughout their careers is consistent confidence. They have taken the brunt of fan criticism this year for losing winnable games. The negativity has taken its toll on their already fragile egos according to Weber.
"It's tough. One, they're great kids. They have some weaknesses. Tisdale isn't strong enough, Mike Davis doesn't always play physical, Demetri has had his slumps, Billy has his limitations. But they are kids, and they have tried.
"They've been good students, good student-athletes, good representatives of the University. Have they won the number of games? Have they lived up to the expectations? Have WE lived up to the expectations? That's the difficult part of it.
"Our great fans are so positive; it makes it a great place to be at. So when it goes the other way, it's tough to deal with. That's why I've said the last couple weeks, I've got to help them. I've got to be there for them.
"We've got to help each other and keep fighting. We put ourselves in this predicament, and we have to see if we can fight out of it with some positive things at the end. They are human, and they are kids. No matter when I tell them not to read things and not look at the Internet, they still do and so do their parents.
"Sometimes it's really hard to deal with. Deron Williams's mother called me one time and told me to tell the guys on the Internet to stop writing things about Deron. Deron was pretty good; you can't listen to that stuff."
Illini seniors have two Senior Days ahead of them this week. At home Saturday, and Tuesday night at Purdue. They want to prove they are quality players on a quality team. There is no better time to make up for earlier failings than to play inspired games in their last go-round.
Cole believes good things are possible.
"This is a great opportunity for us. We can get things going, get two in a row. They're a tough team, but I think we've got the pieces to do it."