Illinois travels to West Lafayette to take on Purdue Saturday. To win, the Illini need to take care of the ball in the face of aggressive Boilermaker guarding. And they will have to limit senior star Robbie Hummel (6'-8", 215), who leads the team with 17.5 points and 6 rebounds a game.
Hummel has seen his last two seasons cut short by knee surgeries, but his intelligence and court awareness make up for any loss of quickness according to Illini head coach Bruce Weber.
"Robbie Hummel is their guy, an experienced guy, knows how to play. He is still probably a little slowed up, but he's got great numbers. 17-18 points a game, shooting the ball pretty good from three and gives you a tough matchup. He just does so many good things."
The Illini will need to share the defensive load on Hummel, who can play outside or inside with equal skill.
"We've guarded him with everyone from Chester (Frazier) to bigger people. We're gonna have to guard him with a variety of people, depending on who is in there. Brandon (Paul) is a decent matchup in terms of body strength and a little bit of size. Maybe at other times you go with a little quickness.
"Even though Robbie might be slowed up a little bit, I don't think he's that slow. He is just so smart. He knows how to play so well, and he knows how to get himself shots, whether it's using screens or using shot fakes and 1, 2 dribbles. And then he will post up at times. He can do a lot of different things."
Decatur native Lewis Jackson (5'-9", 165) is another senior who has given the Illini fits in the past. The jet quick point guard is not a great outside shooter, but he penetrates almost at will for layins and kickouts. He is scoring 10.8 points while handing out 4.2 assists each game.
"He's not the greatest shooter," Weber admits. "He knows what he can do. He's very quick, he's got great toughness. He understands angles, he knows how to get to the basket to create for himself and for others. He's very good inside 10-15 feet. We have to do a good job of staying in front of him.
"He's been great for them. I know Matt (Painter) loves him. He loves how tough he is. He's a great practice player because he loves to play."
D.J. Richardson will guard Jackson at least part of the time. He knows what he must do. Whether he can do it remains to be seen.
"He's quick and gets to the basket and sets up his teammates. We've got to stay in front of him and make him make jump shots."
Ryne Smith (6'-3", 189) is the third senior starter. He is a great shooter, averaging 11 points a game. He is averaging 45.7% from the arc and must be respected there. Junior Kelsey Barlow (6'-5", 200) has given the Illini problems in the past as well. He is scoring over 8 points a game and is a good assist man.
The fifth starter depends on the game. Sophomore Sandi Marcius (6'-9", 257) has started 7 games and freshman Jacob Lawson (6'-8", 218) five. When Hummel plays the five, redshirt freshman Anthony Johnson (6'-3", 179) or soph Terone Johnson (6'-2", 207) come in. Both are averaging around 7 points a game.
Junior D.J. Byrd (6'-5", 234) has struggled this season but helped beat the Illini in the Assembly Hall last year. And junior John Hart (6'-2", 205) is just returning from injury. He starred off the bench for PU two years ago in Champaign.
Weber feels the Illini have some experience defending teams like Purdue.
"The good thing about playing Missouri and some of the other smaller teams, that's what we're gonna face against Purdue. Small ball seems to be the way of the world right now."
That means Joe Bertrand is likely to see considerable playing time.
"A lot of times they're small ball, but they will put a couple of big guys in. There's gonna be opportunities for him to get some minutes. Joe picked up and started playing well. I hope that continues."
Bertrand realizes his game Saturday will include defending Hummel at times.
"Hummel is really quick, comes off a lot of screens. He's gonna be tough for us to guard. We've got to play more defense. Everybody will probably be guarding him a little bit. We'll probably trade off on him."
The Illini are likely to see other Big 10 teams resorting to smaller lineups this year as well.
"We were watching one of the NBA games, and they were playing small ball too. It kind of hit me. It depends on what you have. Matt said over the summer he knew he would have a little bit of a size problem. But he said, 'My guys can still pass, catch and shoot.' When you have skilled people, it really puts you in a bind.
"It runs in cycles. In our league right now, there's not a lot of big four men. You just go with what you have and put your best players on the court."
Purdue has experience and enough firepower to force the Illini to play an inspired defensive game if they want to win. Weber remembers all too well what has happened the last couple years.
"We have to do a good job on Lewis Jackson and Barlow. Both of those guys are great at getting to the paint. And once they get to the paint, they create for others like Robbie or Ryne Smith or Anthony Johnson.
"And then the last few years, it seems like somebody has stepped up against us. Certain guys would make big plays. We've got to make sure that doesn't happen.
"When we've gone to Purdue, we've been able to stay with them. But one stretch in the second half, they seem to be able to turn up that switch. Can you deal with it and not let them have the big run that changes the game if you're in that position?"
The Illini have one major advantage in tall center Meyers Leonard. But Weber reminds Purdue pushes you out farther on the court, making entry passes to the post more difficult.
"Obviously, we have a size advantage with Meyers, but their pressure will make it tough to get it to him. We're gonna have to take care of the basketball."
The combination of Purdue's pressure defense and Illini ball handling carelessness could be a perfect storm for the Boilermakers. If the Illini want to win, they must reduce their turnovers.
"We've got to be under control, we've got to be smart with the ball and take care of the ball," senior guard Sam Maniscalco reminds. "If we cut our turnovers down, we can give ourselves a chance to win. Coach has really stressed that the last few days."
Leonard realizes the importance of getting a cherished road victory.
"It would be a big-time win if we can get it, especially on the road where (the junior class) and my class haven't won yet. We need to play hard, the way we have in spurts during games."
Maniscalco gets only one chance to win in Mackey Arena, and he wants to make the most of it.
"They're a good basketball team. Their program's success the last few years speaks for itself. They're very solid, they're really well coached, and they have a lot of weapons.
"It's tough to win on the road in any league, especially this conference. You want to rack up as many road wins as you can. We've got a boat-load of basketball left in front of us, so win or lose it's not the end of the season. But we want to go in there with some confidence and have a nice showing."