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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, February 27, 2019 8:30 pm

Pregame: No. 14 Purdue (20-7, 13-3 Big Ten) vs. Illinois (10-17, 6-10)

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

WEST LAFAYETTE – Purdue's quest for a 24th Big Ten title rolls on tonight and Illinois is the latest hurdle the Boilermakers have to clear in order to keep pace with Michigan State.

The Boilers still have the inside track, with each of their four remaining games against teams from the bottom half of the Big Ten standings, but the Spartans picked up a huge road win over Michigan on Sunday and Purdue can't afford a letdown against a seemingly inferior opponent at home.

That's especially true because of the style of play of this particular opponent. Illinois has built its brand in the last two seasons on playing all out for 40 minutes, making other teams play faster than they otherwise would and trying to force mistakes. The Illini pressure the ball at all times on defense and try to get into as many passing lanes on the perimeter as possible, so Purdue will have to be strong with the ball and avoid turnovers. 

Illinois doesn't shoot particularly well – just 43 percent as a team, 245th in the country – but it can score points in bunches if it can get out in transition when its opponents get sloppy. In that way, taking care of the ball will be key for the Boilermakers on offense and defense. If Purdue can limit turnovers and force the Illini into the halfcourt, the visitors will struggle to get good shots. On offense, minimizing turnovers will frustrate the Illini's pressure defense and open up driving lanes for Purdue's guards. As we saw last year in Champaign, this pressure defense plays straight into the hands of Carsen Edwards, who can beat almost anyone off the dribble with his strength and quickness. Against Illinois' defense, if you can get past the first defender on the perimeter, there isn't much help coming in the lane. That's how Edwards was able to score a career-high 40 points against Illinois last season. The junior guard, who leads the Big Ten in scoring at 23.4 points per game, is a woeful 7 for 40 from the field in the last two games and an even worse 1 for 20 from beyond the arc. I expect a bounce-back game from him tonight, with most of his points coming from around the rim or at the foul line.

The main key for Purdue early in the game will be to avoid overconfidence. Sure, the Boilers are playing at home, where they're 13-0 this season, against a team that has underwhelmed for long stretches this season. Despite that, Purdue will have to be ready for a "war", as Matt Haarms likes to call matchups against tough teams. Illinois will push the Boilermakers, and Michigan State knows the Illini are capable of pulling big upsets (Illinois beat the Spartans 79-74 on Feb. 6). Purdue coach Matt Painter was named a finalist for National Coach of the Year today and getting his team ready for games like this is part of the reason why. I don't expect the Boilers to come out flat, but if they do, this game will be much closer than some anticipate.

dsinn@jg.net