Illini Seek Home Crowd Advantage Vs. Purdue

The Fighting Illini basketball team hopes a loud, supportive crowd and the return of former Illini greats Eddie Johnson and Don Freeman will uplift and inspire them when they face the surging Purdue Boilermakers Sunday at the Assembly Hall. To perform the rare feat of sweeping Purdue this year, the Illini will need all the help it can get.

Illinois superstars Johnson and Freeman will unveil their jerseys for display in the rafters of the Hall. They were unable to attend the grand unveiling last fall, so they are making up for lost time now. They will be lending moral support to a team that needs to rebuild its confidence after two straight road losses.

Coach Bruce Weber recognizes the importance of the game.

"It's a huge game. We've already beaten them once, and I'm not sure anyone else will sweep them. Right now, they're the top rated team in the Big 10. They have a high RPI. And we're down to 8 games and 4 home games. So the season is coming to a close very quickly."

Illinois played with courage and conviction at Purdue last December, proving they could win on the road. But they cannot become complacent or cocky, as Weber reminds they may have had some good fortune in the first encounter.

"We might have caught them at a good time the first time. The students weren't there, they were buggered up a little bit, and I don't think they were cohesive as a group. I still think we found a way to win the game which is a positive. We haven't done that since then."

Road upsets were not uncommon the first part of the conference season, but Weber thinks and hopes that trend is changing to favor of a home court advantage.

"Right now, we're the only team that has won all its home games in the league, which is surprising. But as the season goes on, it seems like the home court is a little more advantage than it has been. We've played better, we've played with pretty good energy and confidence at home. I hope it's a factor."

Unfortunately for the Illini, Purdue is confident on the road.

"Purdue has shown it can go on the road. Just last week they go to Wisconsin and make big plays, they go to Northwestern and make plays down the stretch. They could have lost those games easily, and they made some plays. They have some guys that can jump up and make some shots at key points in the game. So that's the fear factor."

Purdue has a number of weapons, but Weber's first thought was about sixth man Keaton Grant, who played poorly early in the year.

"Grant is playing much better, he's making some shots. I believe he had surgery this summer, so maybe it took him awhile to figure out his role."

E'Twaun Moore also struggled some early in the year, but he seems to be coming around nicely according to Weber.

"E'twaun Moore is starting to play like he did last year. Last year, the game here was one of the most amazing shows I've coached against in the Big 10. He got us every angle, every which way. And he's starting to do that a little more."

Perhaps the Boiler who is most improved over last year is center JaJuan Johnson. The slender 6'-10" Johnson has become an offensive and defensive force.

"Obviously, Johnson is way improved from a year ago, " Weber states. "He's much more offensive oriented and scoring much better."

Illinois center Mike Tisdale will have to contend with Johnson most of the game, and he has great respect for the fellow sophomore.

"He's long and athletic. He's leading the Big 10 in blocked shots. He's skilled around the hoop. I can't play him too deep because once he's near the basket it's almost guaranteed. I've got to be physical and box him out."

Weber said Purdue coach Matt Painter felt the lack of a point guard hindered his team last season. So he recruited diminutive Lewis Jackson out of Decatur Eisenhower. Jackson has given them a lift according to Weber.

"He gives them great ball pressure. He gives them a little bit of a point guard. He can get some penetration, he can get some things in transition. He's been a nice addition for them, and they've been very happy with him."

Purdue's star is Robbie Hummel. Weber says Robbie has been playing hurt all year, and his status for Illinois is uncertain.

"I know he has a stress fracture in his vertebrae. I think he can play, but he's not totally healthy. We've got to anticipate he's gonna play. A week ago against Wisconsin he made two big threes that won the game. So he has some toughness. He loves to play, and he plays to win. If he's in the game, like Chester he'll give it the full go and be successful."

Rounding out the starting lineup is Chris Kramer. One of the most aggressive and feisty guards in the country, Kramer brings leadership and intensity to the game. His all-out hustle on defense sets the tone. He has been up and down with injuries, but he appears to be rounding into shape for the stretch run.

Besides having a number of scorers and being battle tested, Purdue is exceptional on defense. They get in your face and defy the officials to call it close. They can destroy confidence and take away a game plan. Illinois' Mike Davis sums up Purdue.

"Purdue's a great team. They're a top 15 team in the country. They play great defense, they foul, play hard and shoot the ball well. They have a good core of players."

Weber knows the Illini will have a tough time defeating the Boilermakers. But there is no better time for a complete game from his team.

"If our guys can't get up for a national TV game against a top 15 team, I can't do any more magical tricks to get them motivated."


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