Purdue's only losses this season have been to outstanding Duke and Oklahoma teams. They have two budding superstars in Robbie Hummel (6'-7", 212) and E'Twaun Moore (6'-4", 188). And they play the toughest, in-your-face defense the Illini have seen all year.
Eastern Michigan coach Charles Ramsey has played both Illinois and Purdue this year, and he gives the Boilermakers the edge due to their defense.
"Purdue is very good defensively. They play with a certain intensity level on the defensive end. They play with a lot of swagger at home. They really feed off the home crowd. They really defend you tough.
"Offensively, Illinois does some good things, but Purdue really gets up in you and defends you. Individually, they're big and physical. That's the difference I see.
"Illinois is more than enough athletically. But I think Purdue has a group of guys that really thrive off of playing defense. They really LOVE to play defense. When you go into the Big 10, that's what it's all about."
The Boilermakers lead the Big 10 in scoring margin. They are second in scoring offense and fifth in scoring defense. And they lead in field goal percentage defense, forcing opponents to shoot .352 from the field. Their main defensive weakness is rebounding as they are not a large, powerful team on the inside.
Spearheading their defensive charge is junior Chris Kramer (6'-3", 207). If ever there was a conference MVP named for defense and leadership, Chris is your man. He plays with such great intensity, the rest of the team feeds off him. He is their unsung hero. He's one player they absolutely cannot afford to lose.
Purdue has plenty of heroes offensively. Robbie Hummel played far beyond expectations as a freshman and has continued his outstanding play this season. He is sixth in the conference scoring race, averaging 15.3 points a game. He is second in free throw percentage at .914. And he is fourth in rebounding. The graduated Brian Randle played him tough last year, but what Illini can stay with him this season?
E'Twaun Moore probably has the best pro potential on the team, and he killed the Illini in the Assembly Hall last year. When he got on a roll, no Illini player could defend him. Playing a team game, he doesn't always lead the team in scoring, but he could if needed. E'Twaun is ninth in scoring, tenth in assists and fifth in steals.
Center JaJuan Johnson (6'-10, 215) is slender like Illinois' inside people. But he has made rapid strides since his freshman year. He's not yet a strong rebounder, but he is agile and athletic and must be contained. He is 19th in conference scoring, averaging 12.5 points a game.
Junior Keaton Grant (6'-4", 208) is another talented returnee. He had some big games last year and can get hot at any time. And his big body is an asset defensively. But he is now a sub.
Decatur Eisenhower product Lewis Jackson (5'-8", 165) gives the Boilermakers exceptional quickness as a freshman starter. And if given an opening, he can penetrate and either dish off or fly up for a slam dunk. Illinois coach Bruce Weber knows the Illini must contain Lewis.
"He is giving them some energy. Matt felt he needed a point guard and some depth when other guys didn't play with emotion. He gives them a little zipper quickness and gives them some nice depth."
Other contributors include senior guard Marcus Green (6'-6", 222), senior Bobby Riddell (5'-9", 163), and senior Nemanja Calasan (6'-9", 247). Calasan hasn't done much backing up Johnson this year, but he was a workhorse for the Boilermakers last season as Johnson wasn't quite ready.
Purdue made its reputation last year and is riding that momentum this season. They lack depth and may not be at an elite level nationally yet, but they are close. And at home, they can put on quite a show.
Illinois will need its best game of the year to win. Demetri McCamey must return to the form he displayed when beating Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament last year. If he becomes intimidated and lets the Boilers get into his head, they will take him out of the game.
Purdue will focus extensively on the Illinois guards. If the Illini can get the ball inside, they can use their height to advantage. If not, it could be a long day.