Illinois 84, Purdue 70
CHAMPAIGN - Never bury John Groce's teams after slow Big Ten starts. We should have learned that lesson the previous three seasons.
Illinois started 2-7 in 2013, only to win six of their last nine to make the NCAA Tournament.
Illinois started 3-10 in 2014, only to win five of their next seven to come within one game of the NCAA Tournament.
Illinois started 0-2 last season, only to enter the last month 7-5 in the conference.
The Illini (9-8, 1-3 Big Ten) showed again that they won't bow out early, upsetting No. 20 Purdue 84-70 to avoid the team's first 0-4 start to conference play since 2008.
Malcolm Hill bounced back from a slow start to score 30 points (9-for-15 FG), his second career 30-plus point performance. He also added a team-high eight rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
Kendrick Nunn picked up where he left off, returning from missing Thursday's game -- to witness the birth of his baby boy, Kason -- to score 22 points on 8-for-12 shooting and also add five rebounds.
Jalen Coleman-Lands also scored 10 off the bench.
After a 37-37 halftime tie, Nunn started the second half on a 9-0 run by himself and the Illini never relented, leading for the entire half and outscoring the Boilermakers 47-33 in the second half.
Purdue led for only 1:43. Freshman Caleb Swanigan and point guard P.J. Thompson led the Boilermakers (14-3, 2-2) with 12 points. A.J. Hammons had 10 points on a season-low five field goal attempts.
Expectedly, Illinois lost the battle of the boards but by a managable margin (31 to 25). The Illini dominated in field goal percentage (54 to 45), made free throws(23 to nine), turnovers (16 to 10), and points off turnovers (24 to 14).
According to KenPom.com, Sunday's upset was the Illini's best (Purdue was No. 5 in KenPom rankings) win since upsetting No. 1 Indiana (No. 3 in KenPom) in 2013.
What it means
Illinois got back to competing, and it may give them a spark heading into a more manageable part of the schedule.. Half of their first three Big Ten games weren't even close (second half vs. Michigan and the Michigan State game). Purdue, like Ohio State, is a better team than Illinois, but the short-handed Illini competed for 40 minutes (maybe for the first time this season), and the coaching staff found holes to exploit on the perimeter. The Illini found some life. Let's see if they can maintain it.
What went right
The Illini had their best game of the season in almost every aspect. Illinois put up 80 points against the country's top defensive team (No. 1 in KenPom defensive efficiency). The Illinois' wings dominated. Hill and Nunn played like stars, which Illinois needs to win games. If they combine to score 40, Illinois should win. The bigs battled as well Maverick Morgan filled in for a foul-prone, but physical Michael Finke, to help Illinois extend the lead in the second half. Finke and Jalen Coleman-Lands were hot from deep in the first half.
What went wrong
Really? Let's not pick nits with this team. This was their best performance of the season.
Star of the game
Malcolm Hill: The junior rebounded from three subpar games to start Big Ten play (35 points on 32 percent shooting) to lead Illinois. The Illini need him to be special to win Big Ten games. And he was as good as last season's upset win over No. 11 Maryland. He was locked in on both sides of the court, calling for the ball on offense (while creating for others)
Illinois has a bit of a rest (six days) before it hosts Nebraska for a 1:30 p.m. Saturday tipoff. The Cornhuskers (9-8) are struggling but are a tad more confident after demolishing Rutgers 90-56 on the road. Nebraska plays another Big Ten bottom feeder, Minnesota, on Tuesday.