The Purdue men's basketball team is trying to leave in the past a difficult 2020, a year in which it likely would have missed the NCAA Tournament if it had not been canceled, and get back near the top of the Big Ten standings.
“I was grateful (to see 2020 end) and I'm ready to take on a new year,” Boilermakers guard Eric Hunter Jr. said. “Hopefully we can get it started off with a win.”
The Boilers have that opportunity when they face No. 15 Illinois on the road tonight. It will be the second straight ranked opponent for Purdue after an 81-76 road loss to 14th-ranked Rutgers on Tuesday.
That defeat saw the Boilermakers overcome a 15-point deficit to take the lead, only to let that advantage get away as Rutgers went 11 for 21 from 3-point range. Still, the comeback was an important confidence boost for a young Boilermakers team.
“It's an eye-opener,” center Trevion Williams said of the loss to the Scarlet Knights. “We're aware that we can compete and anybody is beatable if we do our jobs. We just gotta keep pushing.”
One area where the Boilermakers have to push harder is in defending the 3-point line. Rutgers was the fourth consecutive team to make at least 10 shots from long range against the Boilermakers, and guard Montez Mathis went 5 for 5 from deep. If the Boilers are not better at defending shots from beyond the arc, they will struggle mightily against Illinois, which is No. 5 nationally, hitting 42.3% from long distance. That shooting prowess has helped the Illini score more than 87 points a game.
Purdue coach Matt Painter said the key to defending 3-pointers is to stay in front of opposing guards off the dribble and in ball-screen defense.
“(If you don't), then you're behind the play and you have to have built-in help so they can't get to the paint,” Painter said. “And then you do that and you over-help ... now the ball moves pretty quick and now you're in rotations and that's what you want to stay out of.
“Once you get into rotations, people that know how to play and pass and shoot, they're going to make you pay.”
Of course, teams still need to make open shots when they have them and that has happened a lot against Purdue recently.
“Some guys can shoot, but they just haven't gotten hot yet or they're streaky,” Hunter said. “Sometimes it seems like these guys are having their streaks against us.”
One player who is streaking right now is the Fighting Illini's Da'Monte Williams. The 6-foot-3 guard is shooting 69.6% from long distance, best in the Big Ten by more than 10%. Illinois also gets plenty of shooting – and everything else – from guard Ayo Dosunmu, who hits 44.4% of his 3s. Dosunmu, coming off a 30-point game against Indiana on Dec. 26, is pouring in 24.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists per contest.
Hunter will likely draw the assignment of trying to slow Dosunmu down.
The Illinois junior has a terrific inside-outside connection with the Fighting Illini's other star, reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Kofi Cockburn. The 7-foot Cockburn averages 17.2 points on 65.7% shooting, 9.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. He has helped Illinois rank No. 3 nationally with an average rebound margin of plus-14.3.
This will be one of the few games for which Purdue will not have a significant advantage inside. Williams, who went 10 for 12 and had 21 points and 12 rebounds against Rutgers, and freshman Zach Edey, will have to be ready for a battle.
“You have to accept the physicality of the game,” Williams said. “We all know it's going to be physical. A lot of guys when they walk into the game against Kofi, they don't fight him. We have to have a fight.”
Purdue at Illinois
When: 6 p.m. today
Where: State Farm Center, Champaign, Illinois
Records: Purdue (7-4, 2-2 Big Ten), Illinois (7-3, 3-1)
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM