Purdue was highly impressive beating Penn State Friday night, 79-65. The Boilers shot 56% from the floor and had everything going for them. Robbie Hummel is finally healthy and playing well. Center JaJuan Johnson made the All-Big 10 team. He is slender but agile and a high riser. He can shoot the jumper, penetrate for layups and block shots.
Guard E'Twaun Moore is a potential star who has struggled at times this year. He scored 15 last night. Keaton Grant has been in a season long slump, but he hit 5 of 6 three point shots against PSU. Chris Kramer is the heart and soul of PU's defense. And Lewis Jackson, the diminutive guard from Decatur, made the Big 10 All-Freshman team.
Illinois has won 22 Big 10 Tournament games, 8 more than anyone else. In contrast, Purdue has won only 5 games, and Illinois knocked them out of the tournament last year. The Boilermakers are determined to reverse their fortunes in the tournament. And they want to stop the Illini's three game win streak.
One key to the game may be whether Illinois can get out in transition like they did last night. Purdue is a ferocious defensive team, so any points in the half court are earned to the extreme. The Illini need some easy points to counter that, and transition is the way to do it. Coach Bruce Weber has been working the team hard on transition offense, and it may be starting to take hold.
"I've asked them to run all year." Weber said. "A couple of our guys don't always do it. The last three weeks, we've done a drill in practice using a 15 second shot clock. We'd have 3-4 minute games with a 15 second shot clock.
"Get some transition. Get some easy baskets. We get locked up in half court sets and don't make shots. We've got some pretty good athletes, (Mike) Davis, Calvin (Brock). We need our shooters to get down. We've just got to push it. Jeff (Jordan) really pushed the basketball, which put them on their heels (against Michigan)."
The Illini also need to work the ball inside for easy shots by big men Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale. Other than Johnson, Purdue is not extremely tall inside, so the Illini need to exploit that if possible. Weber is pleased with the progress Davis and Tisdale are making fighting for position inside and liked their play against Michigan.
"(Davis) doesn't like to post up because he doesn't have the body yet. All week, we've talked about getting into the post. Mike Tisdale hit him once on a nice high-low. I'm happy because he doesn't just have to hit those 17 footers. There are other ways of scoring.
"Today, he got a putback, some face-ups, a hook. So he's diversified his game a little bit. He hadn't played real well against Michigan the first two times. But the double-double and the big shot when they made the run, and that was big to stop their run and help us finish off the game."
The Illini Nation continues to support their team, making the Michigan game seem like a home game at times. Davis felt their energy and hopes they will continue their efforts today.
"It felt great. One half of the whole thing was all orange. That was big for a Big 10 Tournament game, and it gave us a home court feeling. They were loud the whole game, and we made the run and won the game."
Calvin Brock is happy the Illini reached their preseason goal by winning its 24th game, but that is not their only goal.
"It gave us 24 wins, which can help with our tournament bid. But it's also a step closer to winning the Big 10 Championship, which is our goal."
Trent Meacham is in no hurry to leave the Big 10 Tournament prematurely.
"The Big 10 Tournament is a lot of fun. We had a great run last year, and we want to stay for a few days. It (UI run last year) just shows that anybody can beat anybody. You can't take anyone lightly, no matter who you play the first game. We've got to come out with intensity and play Illinois basketball."
Speaking before his injury, Chester Frazier emphasized how important a Big 10 Tournament Championship is to him and the team.
"My freshman year, we got knocked off by Michigan State. My sophomore year, we made a run to the finals. And the same last year. It would be kind of hard not to get that championship this year. We're gonna try to get it."
Mike Davis concurred.
"I can feel people thinking we're not that great a team, they think we're a streaky team. But I think we're a good team. We're very confident. We're a second seed. We went from 10th to 2nd, that's a big jump. We want to get to Sunday and play in that championship game."
To get to Sunday, they will need a great effort against a team reaching its peak. Considering how both teams play such tight defense, the outcome may depend on how the game is officiated. If they let them play, it could be a bloodbath.