Purdue is still ranked among the top 10 teams in the country despite three straight tough losses. As Illinois coach Bruce Weber reminds, the Boilermakers are one of the most talented and experienced teams in the country.
"They're still the same team they were 10 days ago. The loss to Wisconsin, that was a hard-fought game. I'm sure the Ohio State game was disappointing. And they've struggled with Northwestern the last couple years. And Northwestern' s good so it's not a total surprise."
Matt Painter knows how to get his aggressive over-achievers back on track. He called out his players in public and no doubt put the whip on them in practice.
"I'm sure he's gonna challenge them," Weber reminds. "They're gonna come out (strong). This is our home court, and we have to play well. We have to play with poise, with energy and emotion, use the crowd. We're gonna have to play pretty good basketball. To beat a team like Purdue, everybody's got to play well."
Painter even criticized senior guard Chris Kramer (6'-3", 214), the league's top defender and heart and soul of the PU team. Kramer will likely defend Illini point guard Demetri McCamey. With his natural fire stoked by Painter's not so gentle reminder, Kramer will likely play the game of his life.
Kramer is the team's fourth leading scorer as that part of his game is secondary to his defense, leadership and all-out hustle. He sets the tone for everyone else. Kramer doesn't need to score as Purdue has three potential NBA players doing that for him.
Junior guard E'Twaun Moore leads the Boilermakers with a 17.5 scoring average while shooting nearly 50% from the field. Robbie Hummel, a 6'-8", 208 pound junior, averages 16.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and contributes assists and steals in an all-around game. Slender junior center JaJuan Johnson (6'-10", 215) comes in at 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds, although his play has been inconsistent this year.
Senior guard Keaton Grant (6'-4", 201) has shot poorly at times, but he has four years experience. The Boilers play their five starters most of the time, but three others provide double-digit minutes. Sophomore Ryne Smith (6'-3", 178), and freshmen Kelsey Barlow (6'-5", 199) and D.J. Byrd (6'-5", 214) spell the starters. PU also gets contributions from freshman Patrick Bade (6'-8", 235) and senior Mark Wohlford (6'-0", 186).
Hummel may be the most difficult for Illinois to defend because he can do so many things. Illini forward/guard Bill Cole may be one of those who spends time trying to contain him, and he has great respect for Hummel.
"He's one of those players who can literally do everything on the floor. He's tall, he'll bring the ball up the floor, he'll post up, shoot threes. He's like a utility man, he does it all."
Illini forward Mike Davis may get first crack at Hummel.
"Yeah, I'll probably guard him a little bit, me, Bill, Brandon (Paul) and Dominique (Keller). We'll all take turns. It will be by committee. He's a great player. It's gonna take all of us to stop him."
Weber has utmost respect for Hummel.
"Robbie's really good. He played good against Northwestern, and they still lost. He's gonna get some stuff, we've just got to keep him from going crazy, him and Moore like Moore did two years ago here. We've got to make sure the other guys don't step up and have huge games.
"I just love Robbie, his toughness. Against Northwestern, he gets hit in the face, blood rushing down. He runs into the locker room and literally seconds later comes running out and gets right back in the game. He then hits a three, makes a defensive play. It takes some maturity, some toughness."
Weber tried to recruit Moore and knows first hand how tough he can be.
"Moore had the great freshman year, I think the expectations got to him last year. It seems like he's settled down now. He scores, he's got a great way of manipulating the defense."
Painter has had a problem with Johnson similar to Weber and his center Mike Tisdale. Both are having trouble staying out of foul trouble and playing consistently. Regardless, Weber knows he will have his hands full defending all three while containing the other Boiler players.
"I think we'll rotate a variety of people on (Hummel), just try to keep him off balance. We'll use a guard or a forward, depending on who else is in the game. Robbie's gonna get points. So is E'twuan. They're both scoring in the 20's.
"It's the other guys. Matt's probably saying the same thing about his guys we are. With JaJuan Johnson, how do you keep him in the game? How do you get him the ball? Johnson, when he plays well and stays in the game, he's pretty good. And they need somebody else to step up."
As tough as it will be for the Illini to defend Purdue, it may be even tougher to run an efficient offense against overplaying Boiler defenders.
"They definitely push up their lines a lot on defense," Cole remembers. "They look to fluster you and get you out of what you want to do. I think the biggest thing is staying under control and keeping your poise against them. A lot of times, if you escape that first part of the game and get out of their pressure, they'll tire down a little bit, and they'll relax a little bit."
Illini point guard Demetri McCamey learned as a freshman how intimidating Kramer can be defensively. As a more mature junior, he is better prepared to handle it mentally and physically.
"They might throw three or four people at me. Everybody on Purdue is a good defender. They're gonna foul you five times and might get called twice. You've just got to play basketball. They're gonna be physical, they're gonna foul and they're gonna hack. But we've just got to play through it, beat them off the dribble, get in the lane and throw it in to Tisdale."
Feeding Tisdale is definitely a problem Weber has been trying to address.
"Demetri feeds the post. I'm not sure the freshmen are used to feeding the post. If you look at their high school games, maybe they had no one to feed. And we didn't put much focus on it early in the year. We were pretty free-flowing offensively. Now, we're trying to get a little bit of a change."
Tisdale has struggled with foul trouble at times. He was taken completely out of the Michigan State game by foul problems and aggressive defenders. The Illini need him.
"Keeping Tisdale in the game is something he's got to learn to deal with," Weber relates. "He can't get the cheap, touch fouls. And he has to deal with people. He's a marked man, he's a good player.
"When we throw to him we're pretty effective. People are gonna fight him in the post, and he's got to learn to deal with that and not get retaliation fouls or touch fouls. He's got to work on the mental part of it, keeping his poise."
Keeping poise is a problem for all Illini players, especially when they are in slumps or fall behind and want to recover too quickly according to Weber.
"When guys are struggling, they try to go make plays. One on three or one on five, try to take tough shots. I always use the term, 'Hit a grand slam with no one on base.' That's where the younger guys have got to learn to do it within the offense.
"I want you to shoot, but I want you to shoot shots you practice, and you've got to work to get them. They need to learn to work to get open shots. That may take some time."
Probably the biggest Illini weakness is the same it was at the beginning of the season. Leadership is lacking. The upperclassmen must begin to care more for the team's needs than their own.
"The older guys have got to set the tone for the younger guys," Weber repeats. "I heard Coach Izzo's press conference after our game, and he talked about player coached versus coach coached.
"When you get to the point where your players are part of the coaching staff and are part of the coaching of the whole team, saying the right things in the locker room, huddles and practice, that's when you make progress.
"We were successful (last season) because Chester (Frazier) made that a commitment. We need to do that this year and especially next year when we have those guys coming in. That those guys understand what it's about and hold each other accountable. Learn the game and help each other. That's where we've got to make some progress."
After Purdue, the Illini go on a two game road trip. A loss to the Boilermakers could turn into a four game losing streak really easily. The Big 10 is as strong from top to bottom as anytime in recent memory. Every game is difficult. Cole perhaps said it best.
"The Big 10 is such a grind. Every game is a tough game. You can't take any games off. Every team plays well at home, every team knows it needs to win on the road. No matter where you are, you're gonna get a tough game. They (PU) are more experienced than anyone at that, and they're gonna come out like a wounded animal."
McCamey knows the his team will see the Boilers' best effort, so the Illini must have the same intensity.
"They're gonna be fired up and have their guys ready. So we have to have a kill-kill mentality. They've lost three in a row and are not feeling good, so we've got to come out hard the first five minutes and hopefully get their confidence down."
Illinois will finally have its students back on campus to support them after a lengthy semester break. Weber knows the Illini will need the home court to be an advantage, and the enthusiastic students can be catalysts.
"Yeah, that will be huge. It definitely plays a role. We had a great crowd against Purdue last year. They were into the game. We have to play well for them to help us. We've had some great crowds even without the students. We've got to take advantage of it."