Illini Face Huge Challenge at #4 Purdue

After a week to rest and reflect on the season to date, the Fighting Illini reenter the Big 10 race for the final five game push to complete the regular season. Normally, teams like to play soon after an embarrassing loss, but the extra days may have helped the Illini free their minds of the pressures temporarily. Playing at Purdue will be no picnic, but the Illini should be ready to face them.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber gave his charges almost two full days off and then eased back into a practice schedule to prepare for Purdue. He felt it was important his players have both physical and mental rest from the difficult schedule to date. He hopes the Ohio State loss will make his team eager to return to competition.

"With the loss, maybe a little bit of hungriness. The freshness, getting away from it all. We've got a big stretch run here the last three weeks. Hopefully we can perform well. You never know with kids, but it might be a well-needed thing at this point."

The fourth-ranked Boilermakers continue to make a strong case for an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed after beating ninth-ranked Ohio State Wednesday in Columbus -- Purdue's first-ever victory in Value City Arena, where it had been 0-9.

Now, the Boilermakers must prepare for Illinois on Saturday in Mackey Arena, where Weber was a Gene Keady assistant coach for 18 seasons. This always is a difficult game emotionally for Purdue coach Matt Painter as well. He was recruited by Weber to Purdue and later was Weber's assistant at Southern Illinois.

After winning its first 14 games this season, Purdue had lost three in a row when it went to Illinois on January 19 and defeated Weber's team, 84-78. That began what now is an eight-game Boilermaker winning streak. They will be heavily favored Saturday.

"We're starting out with one of the best teams in the country, and they're playing at a very high level right now," Weber reminds "They've won 8 games in a row and had a very good performance at Ohio State.

"Our game was huge for them. They had three losses in a row and really struggled in the first half against us. We thought at that time we let them off the hook. We allowed them to keep it close. We heard Matt getting after them pretty strongly two locker rooms away at halftime. (John) Hart coming and making big plays was huge for them. But we could hear him yelling, 'You've got to get it inside.'

"Since that point, they've recognized getting it into (JaJuan) Johnson. They also posted up E'Twaun Moore and Robbie (Hummel) a little bit. They maybe limited some of the three point shooting. Johnson's had a great stretch run here when they've had the winning streak.

"I think some of the other guys are starting to play a little bit. I thought (Keaton) Grant was key (against OSU) and played quite well against Michigan State."

Weber is concerned about Purdue's defense as well. They hadn't shown their normal intensity middle of the season, but that has returned according to Weber.

"I know Matt was mad at them even after they won a couple games. They gave up a lot of points against Indiana. He was disappointed in the defense at that point.

"It seems like their defense has really picked up. I thought they did a great job against Ohio State in limiting some of their other guys. And then they didn't let Iowa score at all.

"That's your fear factor. Always when you go into Mackey and they're playing at a high level, especially defensively, they can make it very difficult on you."

Johnson was an Illini killer last season, and he has regained his form after struggling early. Weber says Johnson has performed better as his teammates have improved their games.

"If everybody on their team plays well, it's tough to double him. I think they've pushed the ball in transition a lot more since our game. JaJuan runs well, so he gets some isolations inside on the break. It's not the primary break where you get the 3 on 1. But this is where they kick ahead, swing it and then they've got the court spread. He gets Tisdale sealed and gets layups.

"And then in their halfcourt, they've gone four out a lot. If these other guys make shots, you can't really sit back on him. And a lot of teams, if they do double, they double with their other big. You're talking about Robbie Hummel possibly being one of the better three point shooters in the country. I think that's where people hesitate to double.

"When he's really in a groove, he feels like every time he shoots it he feels like it's going in. He's shooting the ball with a lot of confidence at this point. It really started in our game. In the 3-4 games before that, he averaged 6-7 points. He's continued to get involved during this win streak."

Moore, Hummel and Johnson all have legitimate shots at pro contracts. Chris Kramer is the senior emotional leader, and he spearheads their defense with his confident aggressiveness. Kelsey Barlow still starts, although he isn't scoring like he did against Illinois first time around. Grant plays his minutes.

And then there's John Hart. The young guard came from out of nowhere to kill the Illini, and he has continued to give them double digit minutes even though he doesn't always score much. The Illini will have to respect him more than most teams to prevent a reoccurrence.

"Because of our game, Hart has earned some minutes," Weber discussed. "He gives them a different look. They were playing a couple other guys that didn't get much done, and that's why Matt looked to somebody else.

"Against us, he found a gem. He really got their team going, so Matt's continued to go back to him. He hasn't been a huge factor except in our game, but it's more depth. The kid plays with a lot of confidence."

Purdue has one additional asset it didn't have in the first Illini game. Lewis Jackson, the diminutive but superquick point guard from Decatur, has recovered from injury in time for the stretch run. His defense on the point could give Illini guard Demetri McCamey fits, and his offensive bursts will be difficult to defend. He is still getting his basketball legs back, but his work load is increasing.

While the media fret over NCAA berths and RPI rankings, Weber cares only about winning more games. He believes wins over Top 25 teams will help the cause, but he knows his team's attractiveness to the selection committee will be enhanced with every additional win.

"I don't even know what our RPI is. All we can do is continue to improve and see if we can play at a high level."

A loss to Purdue won't hurt those chances, but a win would be a big help.

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