Preview: Illinois vs Purdue - Illini and Boilermakers Looking For Crucial Win

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois hosts Purdue in a game that both teams desperately need to win.

By the Numbers:

Purdue Team Illinois
11-5 (1-2) Record 13-4 (2-2)
NR Ranking NR
113 RPI 30
87 BPI 45
95 KenPom 62
78 Sagarin 53

January 15, 2014

9:00 PM EST - BTN

Skinny:

For the middle of the Big Ten there has already been a relatively high amount of 'must win' games and the storyline surrounding tonight's matchup between Illinois and Purdue isn't far removed from this angle. Illinois got off to a quick start this season but fell from the rankings as they were embarrassed by Northwestern in an offensively challenged performance they'd like to quickly forget. Now Illinois is feeling considerably more vulnerable and there's been quite a bit of murmuring that the Illini are about to kick off another January slump. Illinois still has a nice RPI number to hang their head on, but a loss here could be detrimental to the team as they'll follow tonights game with matchups against Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin.

On the other side of things is Purdue, a team that has had opportunities to pick up big wins against Oklahoma State, Butler, Ohio State and Minnesota...but has failed every time. A win here isn't a "must" for the Boilers, especially with Penn State and Northwestern on the horizon, but it would be a solid road win and easily Purdue's best win of the season. Even if the Boilermakers can take care of the business versus the bottom feeders of the Big Ten, they still need to win several games like this. If Purdue can win it'll be a nice win to add to the resume, especially with it coming on the road, and could help them out come March if both the Boilers and Illini are sitting on the bubble.

Also, tonight's game could get interesting if Rayvonte Rice is a no-go. As of now he's currently listed as a game time decision and his loss would be a huge blow to Illinois.

Projected Starting Lineup:

Purdue Pos. Illinois
Ronnie Johnson G Tracy Abrams
Terone Johnson G Rayvonte Rice
Rapheal Davis G Joseph Bertrand
Basil Smotherman F Jon Ekey
A.J. Hammons C Nnanna Egwu

Players to Watch:

Jay Simpson: Returning home will be Purdue big Jay Simpson, looking to have an impressive performance in his hometown. Simpson had a strong performance versus Nebraska in limited minutes, scoring 7 points in 14 minutes. A.J. Hammons also had a good day, but if Simpson can spell Hammons and match his production, then Purdue's frontcourt will be very difficult for Egwu and the Illini to slow down. Simpson's role could also become more important this season as Hammons has struggled with fouls, limiting his minutes in several games already. If Simpson can take control down low it'll help solidify Purdue's inside game and will give the guards more options to feed the ball down low.

Kendall Stephens/Sterling Carter: Kendall Stephens is essentially running the Ryne Smith offense as the freshman has shot 82 of his 97 field goals from beyond the arc. So far this season he's shooting almost 37% and is coming off of a 2 of 3 day versus Nebraska. One of the easiest ways to pick up tough road wins in the Big Ten is to get hot from outside and if Stephens can light it up it would go a long way for the Boilers. Also, senior Sterling Carter has seen has minutes increase as of late and will also provide an additional weapon from outside. After falling out of the rotation, Carter has played 39 minutes the last two games, averaging nine points per game and shooting 50% from three. If Stephens and Carter can keep it up from outside, with Hammons and Simpson contributing down low, it'll help take the pressure off of the Johnson brothers and could create an offense that is actually capable of spreading the floor.

Rayvonte Rice: Rice is the life force for the Illini offense, averaging almost six points more per game than the second leading scorer Tracy Abrams. Time and time again this season Rice has taken control of the game and has helped Illinois reach their current 13-4 record. Unfortunately for Illinois, Rice suffered an injury versus Northwestern and is currently a game time decision for tonight's matchup. If Rice can't go it'll likely severely limit Illinois's offense and will put a lot of pressure on Tracy Abrams to pick up the slack. If Rice is healthy enough to play tonight it could easily be the deciding factor in a game that features two offenses that have a tendency to struggle scoring points.

Tracey Abrams: Illinois played horribly versus Northwestern on Sunday, but Tracey Abrams was easily the best player for the Illini that evening. Leading the team in scoring (13) and assists (5), while adding six rebounds and three steals, Abrams kept his team in the game down the stretch and was the only one doing anything of value. Now that Illinois may be without Rice today, look for the offense to see plenty of Abrams as he tries to carry the Illini in what will be a very big game for his team.

Staff Comments:

Purdue Perspective: Well Purdue finally got on the board with their first Big Ten victory, holding off Nebraska in a home game that was closer than Purdue fans anticipated. Now the Boilermakers will head out to take on Illinois and what will be another opportunity to pick up a nice win. So far this season Purdue has more or less blown every one of these opportunities, outside of winning at West Virginia, and will need to pick up these kind of games if a NCAA Tournament appearance is going to happen. Losing here wouldn't be the end of the world, though, as Purdue can bounce back with Penn State and Northwestern coming up next. However, the Boilers need to win these kind of games and it's a pretty good time to do so as Illinois is coming off of a reeling loss versus in-state rival Northwestern. The last time here Purdue lost by 20, so look for the team to play a bit better than their last outing. Bigs A.J. Hammons and Jay Simpson played decently in their last outing, so look for Painter to continue feeding the bigs. When all is said and done it'll likely come down to if Purdue's guards can have a solid shooting night, but if Purdue could also get their defense up and running then they might not need that many points. Especially if Rayvonte Rice is a no-go.

Illinois Perspective: Illinois needs a win here, big time. Coming into last weekend the Illini were looking good but that feeling came crashing down after a disastrous outing versus Northwestern where they lost even though they held the Wildcats to 49 points. Now everyone is speculating about another mid-season slump and Illinois needs to right the ship immediately or else they're in serious trouble. If Illinois loses they'll be sitting at 13-5 with two wins versus the top 100. Not exactly the end of the world until you realize Illinois may struggle heavily just to win one game over their next five outings as they take on Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin. A loss tonight could mean Illinois ends up at a not-so impressive 14-9 mark (or could continue what could end up as a seven game losing streak). If the Illini fall to Northwestern and can't pick off Purdue at home, one has to wonder how they team will feel their odds are when they face off against the cream of the crop in the Big Ten. And to make matters more troubling, their offensive leader is a game-time decision. Even if Rice can go out tonight and play, one has to wonder if his injuries will slow him down. When all is said and done I think it's safe to say the Illini faithful are hoping Purdue's offensive inconsistency rears it's ugly head because a loss is the last thing they can afford if they want to return to the NCAA Tournament.

Prediction:

Purdue may be 1-2 in the conference, but outside of  a 15 minute stretch against the Gophers, they've looked pretty good so far. For as many issues as Purdue has had, they did hang with Ohio State in the opener, outplayed Minnesota down the stretch and finally picked up a win versus Nebraska. On the flip side, Illinois is a team that has seen it's play start to sag off and has injury concerns surrounding its best player. If Rice is a no-go it would be a huge blow to Illinois. Regardless, John Groce has most likely drilled it into his teams heads that tonight's game is extremely important to their tournament odds so look for Illinois to be prepared for the Boilermakers.

What will likely determine how tonight plays out is if Purdue can continue to see their offense improve. Last time out the Boilers saw solid performances from Hammons and Simpson down low and it helped the offense immensely. It also helps that Stephens and Carter are starting to feel it from outside, giving Purdue a solid perimeter attack. This ends up helping take the pressure off of Ronnie and Terone Johnson and keeps defenses from locking down on them as they have to defend the entire floor. if Purdue can score inside and continue to hit from outside, their offense could actually look pretty good. The problem here is I've seen enough Purdue games to realize they'll likely do a 180 out of nowhere and struggle tonight. For whatever reason the team really seems to play better when no one expects anything from them.

The game will likely come down to the health status of Rayvonte Rice. If Rice is healthy enough to play productively, look for Illinois to outlast Purdue down the stretch and pick up the W here. If Rice doesn't play, or his injury slows him down, look for Purdue to pull off the upset. Rice is the offensive leader here and there hasn't been enough consistency from anyone else on the roster to think Illinois can keep it up without him. When everything is said and done, Abrams isn't consistent enough of a scorer to repeatedly carry the team and Illinois doesn't have the most impressive frontcourt either. With their freshmen not really taking off yet, the team will need to see increased production from Joseph Berrtand and Jon Ekey. It'll be a close game regardless, but tonight will likely come down to Rayvonte Rice.

(with Rayvonte Rice) Illinois 71 Purdue 61
(without Rayvonte Rice) Illinois 60 Purdue 63

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