Illini Seek End To Purdue Streak Tonight

After losing six of their last seven games, the Fighting Illini basketball team limps home for a rematch with feisty Purdue Wednesday at 7:30 pm. If the Illini hope to make the NCAA Tournament, they must win more games. The key will be whether they have the inner fortitude to forget the past and play inspired ball the rest of the season.

Enough for the posturing and wishful thinking. The Illinois basketball team no longer has breathing room. It can't continue to play sporadically, up one game and down another. If it has any post season hopes, if it wants to finish the season on a positive note and make all its hard work worthwhile, it must play every possession like it's the last.

"We've got a big week," Illini coach Bruce Weber understates. "We put ourselves in a situation where you've got a third of the Big 10 season left, and you've got to get something done if you're going to have a chance to make something of the season and get into the NCAA. It's plain and simple; we've talked to the kids about it.

"We've got to find a way to get a win. It's that fine line. I don't want them to be stressed, but I do want a sense of urgency. I want them to play with a sense of desperation. That's how hard we've got to play.

"I told them it's Valentine's week, and your heart and mind have to be in the right place. If it is, you'll play with the intensity you need to play."

First on the agenda is Purdue Wednesday evening. The Boilermakers have defeated the Illini six in a row, with no end in sight. They have been up and down and have the same overall record as the Illini. But they always rise up against their former assistant coach.

"It starts with Purdue at home. Purdue has had some of their own struggles at different times. We are both kind of in similar situations, as is Northwestern and a lot of teams in the league. It's gonna come down to this last stretch. We need to muster up some wins."

PU's defensive intensity ruffles Illini ball handlers and disrupts offensive flow. And their mixture of talents is difficult to defend. Robbie Hummel is their star despite two knee surgeries. Called by Weber "Draymond Green without the wheels," Hummel is scoring 16 points a game.

"(Hummel) some days looks bouncy, and other days he doesn't. He doesn't get to practice much. He's not shooting great overall, but he can get going. If he gets in a rhythm, he's still a very good player. He plays so hard, and he loves to play. He plays to win, he plays for Purdue. And he's just a good leader."

No other PU player is in double figures, but five others score between 7.5 and 9.8 points each outing.

"They put you in a bind because they'll play Hummel at the five and (D.J.) Byrd at the four. They're playing small ball, so we'll have to see how the game goes. We'll go with what we believe is our best lineup and hope we don't get into a spot where we're chasing and they make shots. Now we're scrambling.

"You've got Byrd, (Ryan) Smith and Robbie that can shoot the three, and they spread you a little bit. On the other hand, it's Lewis (Jackson), (Kelsey) Barlow, (Terone) Johnson going to the basket. It's a fine line. You've got to protect against those guys but make sure their shooters don't get into a rhythm.

"Byrd is kind of the X-factor I think. He's been really playing well lately. The crazy thing is, we recruited him and watched him. He was a two guard, and now he's running around like a 4-5 and shooting threes. He puts you in a bind."

Jackson is playing his last regular season game against his home state team. He has been a thorn in the Illini side throughout his career.

"He didn't start their last game, but he had eight assists," Weber reminds. "He's smart, he knows how to play. He gives them that toughness. He has his moments where he gets a couple baskets. We've got to keep him out of the paint, that's the biggest thing."

The Illini pride themselves on defense and have emphasized it in practice since last summer. When the offense tanked a couple games, Weber and his staff worked harder on offense, and shooting percentages improved. Now the defense is struggling.

"The biggest disappointment for me the last three games has been the defense, which has baffled me because two weeks ago, we held Michigan State to 41 and 24%. They're one of the better teams in the country.

"Defense is pride, it's effort. Preparation is part of it. We've had breakdowns; we haven't had the intensity. Some of it is we don't take care of the basketball, and that puts us in a bind. The turnovers for touchdowns killed us at Michigan. When they get easy layups off of turnovers, it's tough to deal with, especially when you struggle offensively.

"It would be nice if we could get D.J. (Richardson), Brandon (Paul) and Meyers (Leonard) all playing well at the same time. We've had it a few times, but not many. It would ease the pressure on some of the other guys, but for some reason we haven't been able to get the consistency."

Weber is concerned the Illini have forgotten some fundamentals of good play.

"We've got to get back to basics. We've got to have pride on the defensive end. And its fundamentals, jumping to the ball, being at the right spot, switching. Four or five times in the Michigan game, guys just didn't communicate and ended up giving a layup to them. If you want to be a good team, you can't do that."

Richardson feels communication is a major problem on the defensive end.

"I think communication right now is our worst part. Not switching when we need to switch. We've got to start communicating with each other and help each other on defense. If we can stop the other team and score a couple points, we win the game."

He also wants morale to stay high despite recent setbacks.

"We've got to keep fighting to the end. We've been playing hard, but we need to do a better job on the defensive end. We've got to keep coming to practice and getting better. We've got to keep from getting frustrated and not let things get more downhill than they have been."

Illini juniors Paul, Richardson and Tyler Griffey are tired of losing to the Boilermakers.

"I haven't beaten them since I've been in college," Richardson remembers. "Ohio State was another team like that, and we got one. So hopefully we can get one against Purdue. It's a big game for us, especially for me, Brandon and Tyler. It's gonna be a tough matchup, but we want this game badly. Every game from now on is a big game for us. Hopefully we can get this win and keep it going."

Griffey, who has a chance for more playing time after scoring 18 points Sunday at Michigan, says it is important to prevent a big Purdue run.

"With them, we talk about how there's a point in the game where they turn it up a few notches. We know it's coming, so we have to be prepared for that. We've got to have a short memory. The season isn't over with, so we have to continue playing."

The UI players continue to battle during practices. Tuesday's effort was one of the best of the year according to onlookers. Weber has worked diligently to keep his guys believing in themselves.

"Kids have had good spirit. All you can do is be positive and keep pushing, keep helping them and see if we can make a run here."

This is do-or-die time. Will the Illini prevail?

"Obviously, it's been disappointing," Weber admits. "We've had some great wins and some tough losses. But now it comes down to these six games and the Big Ten tournament."

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