Purdue gutted its way through a two-overtime win over Minnesota at Mackey Arena on Thursday and tonight will try to take that same intensity on the road against one of the most improved teams in the Big Ten: Illinois.
The Boilermakers have lost their two road games against Power Six opponents this season, falling at Marquette and Nebraska. They showed maturity and poise late against the Golden Gophers, but doing so again in a hostile environment will be more difficult.
The Fighting Illini's style makes matters even worse. Illinois, which beat then-No. 5 Michigan in Champaign in December and nearly toppled then-No. 3 Maryland on the road, plays the most intense perimeter defense of any team in the conference, denying all passing lanes and pressuring the ball relentlessly.
“They're very aggressive,” coach Matt Painter said of the Illini (9-5, 1-2 Big Ten). “They don't let you use screens, they really get into you. If you show weakness, they're really going to get aggressive and play the passing lanes. ... I would think at home, the way they hawk the ball, they will definitely try to make things hard for us. You complement that with that athleticism and the size they have, it's a really good balance.”
Painter's last point is crucial. Early in coach Brad Underwood's tenure, the Illini's defense made them pesky, but they didn't have the athletes to really be dangerous. Now they do. The way to beat them used to be with a heavy dose of ball movement and backdoor cuts against that pressure, but with 7-foot freshman center Kofi Cockburn clogging the lane, that's a much more difficult proposition this season.
Cockburn, a four-star recruit from Jamaica, is playing as well as any freshman in the country. He has won Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors five times. His 9.6 rebounds per game rank fifth in the conference and his 15.2 points per contest are second on the team.
“(He's) very unique,” Painter said of Cockburn. “He reminds us of (former Purdue center) Isaac (Haas), where you have to game plan against somebody. When they establish a deep position, whether that's posting or rebounding, it's hard to move them. ... You have to be quick to double him, get him away from his sweet spot and what he wants to do.”
Painter also cautioned, however, that the Boilermakers (9-5, 2-1) can't be too aggressive against Cockburn, as teams often were against Haas down low, because that leads to foul trouble and open shots for perimeter players.
The task of stopping Cockburn will fall mostly to Matt Haarms, who is coming off a career night against Minnesota, when he had 26 points and nine rebounds. Haarms has been guarding the best big men the Big Ten has to offer for two years and just went toe-to-toe with Minnesota's Daniel Oturu on Thursday. If anyone can slow down Cockburn, it's Haarms.
“He's playing at a really high level,” Haarms said of Cockburn. “It's going to be about limiting his opportunities, because he's missing shots, but he's getting them back. So if we just limit those extra opportunities I think we'll do a good job against him.
“Every single team in the Big Ten, the ones we've played against and the ones we're going to play against have a great big man, so that's something you've got to be ready for in this conference,” Haarms added.
Purdue at Illinois
When: 8 p.m. today
Where: State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.
Records: Purdue (9-5, 2-1 Big Ten), Illinois (9-5, 1-2)
Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM