CHAMPAIGN, Illinois – Purdue got off to a lightning-fast start this season, beating Villanova and North Carolina and crushing Florida State on the way to securing the nation's No. 1 ranking. Since then, however, the Boilermakers have mostly been treading water, beating the teams they should (except Rutgers) and losing to the one really good team they faced (Wisconsin).
After demolishing a hapless Nebraska team on Friday at Mackey Arena, the Boilermakers, especially guard Jaden Ivey, pronounced their mojo returned and their swagger back. But if they're going to get back into the Big Ten race (they dropped two of their first three games after entering the season as the league favorite) and rekindle their hopes of earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, that swagger has to stay with them when they take the court today at the State Farm Center against conference-leading Illinois, winner of six in a row. It's an opportunity to earn Purdue's first ranked victory since Nov. 21. A loss will put the Boilers' conference championship hopes on ice before the league schedule has reached its midway point.
The Fighting Illini come into this matchup as one of the hottest teams in the conference, but they have yet to beat a ranked opponent all season, losing to Arizona, the only top 25 team they've faced, 83-79 in this building in December. Their six-game winning streak has included four Big Ten victories, but those have been against the bottom half of the conference (Minnesota, Maryland, Nebraska and a depleted Michigan playing without All-American center Hunter Dickinson). The Illini have yet to play any of the Big Ten's top teams: Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue. That ends today. The rubber is meeting the road for Illinois, as well.
The Illini have owned this series in recent years, winning three straight against the Boilermakers, including back-to-back blowouts during the 2019-20 season. Purdue was a different team then, but those losses still sting the players who remember them. It's not a coincidence that Illinois' dominance of the Boilers began that season, which was when 7-foot center Kofi Cockburn arrived on campus. Cockburn, an absurdly-chiseled 285-pounder, has terrorized Big Ten big men for three seasons and is averaging 21.9 points on 60% shooting plus 12.3 rebounds. Today's will be one of the few games all season in which the Boilermakers don't have a firm advantage in the matchup of centers; Zach Edey and Trevion Williams have pushed around smaller teams this season, but they likely won't be able to do so against the junior All-American. Their best chance at getting the better of him will be to put forth maximum effort at all times and tire Cockburn out over the course of the game. After all, he plays about 30 minutes per contest, while Williams and Edey average about 20 each, with one on the court at almost all times. They should be fresher at the end of the game if they make Cockburn work for everything he does.
The danger for Purdue comes if Cockburn gets Edey and/or Williams in foul trouble. If one of them has to match him for long stretches one-on-one, can the Boiler center hold his own? Cockburn will do everything in his power in the game's early minutes to make sure we find out. This battle between two of the three best rebounding teams in the country should be an all-out war in the paint.
But Illinois is more than Cockburn. The Illini have a plethora have talented guards providing critical support to their future NBA big man. Crucially, Illinois shoots better than 38% from 3-point range as a team, ranking 23rd in the nation and making it difficult for opposing teams to risk double-teaming the center lest they give up open 3s. Senior guard Alfonso Plummer, a Utah transfer new to Illinois this season, is averaging 15.9 points and shooting 40% from 3-point range, while 6-6 Jacob Grandison is hitting 47.8% from beyond the arc.
The Illini have played for more than six weeks without playmaking guard Andre Curbelo, who has been dealing with a concussion. He has missed 10 straight games, but is in uniform this morning, warming up with his team. It's unclear whether he'll play, but that's a good sign for Illinois. The 6-1 sophomore is a boom-or-bust player, averaging 5.5 assists and four turnovers per contest.
In addition to being an important Big Ten matchup, this afternoon's clash will have a distinct Fort Wayne flavor. Purdue forward Caleb Furst, a Blackhawk Christian graduate, and Illinois guard Luke Goode, a Homestead product, played AAU basketball together for years and the Journal Gazette has heard their parents drove from the Summit City to the game together. Furst, the 2021 Indiana Mr. Basketball, is averaging 5.7 points and 4.8 rebounds in close to 20 minutes per game, while Goode is averaging 2.3 points, 1.8 rebounds and 40% shooting from 3-point range in about nine minutes per contest.