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January 2, 2013
Whatever it was that was wrong with perennially inconsistent Illinois before, it's seemed to figure it out now in Year 1 under new coach John Groce.
The Fighting Illini have been arguably the surprise of the Big Ten this season, ranked 11th and sitting on a 13-1 record headed into Wednesday night's 8:30 p.m. Big Ten opener against Purdue in Mackey Arena.
Illinois' led by a new coach - Groce came over from Ohio University to replace the ousted Bruce Weber, now at Kansas State - but includes several familiar faces, led by seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, each of whom are richly experienced.
"They're making more shots," Purdue coach Matt Painter said of the Illini, against whom the Boilermakers are riding a seven-game win streak. "... They've been in big games. They've been on a big stage. That part of it doesn't faze those guys, but I think they're doing the same things they've done before. They're just playing better. It's hard when people are gunning for you every night, but it looks like those guys have found their grooves."
With some help from breakout sophomore Tracy Abrams and impact reserve Joseph Bertrand, Illinois has established itself thus far as a top-10-type team in a league full of them, in a season in which preseason expectations were modest for a team that lost 12 of its 18 Big Ten games last season.
Paul's been a huge part of it.
The previously enigmatic senior is averaging 18.7 points. In road games at Hawaii and Gonzaga, he scored 25 and 35, respectively, the latter performance earning him National Player-of-the-Week honors.
"They're having a great year," said Purdue's Terone Johnson, who's likely to guard Paul, "and his confidence level is really high."
Paul's helping Illinois average nearly 77 points per game.
Illinois' long-range shooting threats will challenge a Purdue defense allowing opponents to shoot just 29 percent from three-point range thus far this season.
"The main thing when you go against people who can score from the perimeter is you just have to make it tough on them," Painter said. "If they make tough ones, you have to be able to live with it, but don't let them get easy ones, don't let them get layups or to the free throw line and don't let them get wide-open rhythm shots. If you do that, they're going to accumulate a lot of points. We have to know where they are at all times and try to make them score over us and out of rhythm, because they've proven that once they get it going, they're tough to stop."
But a familiar refrain around Purdue is how the Boilermakers have stopped themselves, mostly with turnovers, though that issue has been curbed somewhat in recent wins over Ball State and William & Mary.
"Just being a little sharper in what we do and executing better," Painter said. "But we still just have glaring turnovers. In the first half (vs. William & Mary), we had three or four that just led directly to baskets, just elementary plays where we need to either hold the ball or wait a second to let it develop. Hopefully it's a sign of maturity and we can continue to be under 10 turnovers.
"Our goal is eight turnovers a game, so the fact that we're at 16 in the last two games, hopefully we're trending in that direction."
Purdue's just 6-6 entering Big Ten play.
And now things get even more difficult.
"We have to take care of the basketball and just be mentally and physically (tougher)," Painter said. "I think at times mentally we put ourselves in positions where we get away from the things that got us to that point.
"Being mentally tougher and aware of what we do as a team is going to be important, and taking care of the basketball. And then rebounding. We've all talked about that as a strength. We'll see. Is rebounding a strength against opponents in the Big Ten? That'll be a tell-tale for us, those two areas, because I think if we can do those things, that will give us some confidence and if we can be more patient and execute, we can shoot a better percentage."
If Purdue's going to start league play on the right foot, all those things have to start Wednesday night.
"It's kind of a new season for our team," senior D.J. Byrd said, "and hopefully we can come out and get a win right off the bat."
(And we're guessing.)
G: Terone Johnson
G: Ronnie Johnson
F: D.J. Byrd
F: Jacob Lawson
C: A.J. Hammons
G: Tracy Abrams (6-1, 185, So.)
G: D.J. Richardson (6-3, 195, Sr.)
G: Brandon Paul (6-4 200, Sr.)
F: Tyler Griffey (6-9, 220, Sr.)
C: Nnanna Egwu (6-11, 235, So.)
Illinois' going to let it fly from deep, shooting an average of 26 three-pointers per game, making an average of nine-and-a-half and shooting 37 percent. … Out of the backcourt, Paul is Illinois' leading rebounder, averaging 5.1. … as a team Illinois is only out-rebounding opponents by a margin of 1.1. … the Illini have had a knack for winning close games, most recently an 81-79 win over Auburn in Chicago; wins over Hawaii and Gardner-Webb also came by the slimmest of margins … Illinois won the Maui Invitational, winning its three games by an average of 23.3 points, including a 78-61 win over now-ranked Butler in the title game. … Bertrand might be one of your early front-runners for Big Ten sixth-man honors, coming off the bench to average 8.8 points on 60-percent shooting, 46 percent from three-point range. … Illinois also has a big-time road win in the books, winning at Gonzaga 85-74. … Groce was born in Muncie, which is also Painter's hometown. He's the former associate head coach at Ohio State under Thad Matta.
About Purdue: Roster | Schedule | Statistics
Illinois: Roster | Schedule | Statistics
Game time: 8:30 p.m.
Radio: Purdue Sports Network (95.7 FM locally)
TV: Big Ten Network
Internet: GoldandBlack.com subscribers can follow along live with our in-game blog, "Game Day Live."
Things to think about
1. Can Purdue continue trending upward on the turnover front, after committing just nine against Ball State, then a season-low seven against William & Mary. That said, Illinois is different animal than either of those teams.
2. Illinois is not a great rebounding team. Purdue has been very good at times. That needs to be an advantage for Purdue. Of course, it has to make the Illini miss shots for there to even be rebounds.
3. Can the Boilermakers cover all their bases on the perimeter? Paul and Richardson are enough of a handful, but Abrams and Joseph Bertrand can go off at any time as well, and Griffey's a dangerous shooter from the power forward position, where it will be a challenge for Purdue to match up.
Purdue will have to stick to guys on the three-point line without getting gouged off the dribble.
4. How many Illinois fans are going to scoop up Christmas break tickets and dot Mackey Arena's stands with orange?
GoldandBlack.com Prediction: Purdue has obviously had Illinois' number for several years now, but the tables look to have turned right now, with the Boilermakers struggling and Illini surging. That said, Illinois is winning, but not without displaying vulnerabilities. If Purdue can contain Paul, rebound well and not beat itself with turnovers, it can absolutely win. But it's difficult to pick against the top-10ish team in this one.
Illinois 62, Purdue 59
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