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Illinois at Purdue: Keys to Victory

Purdue v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The No. 13 Illinois Fighting Illini visit the No. 3 Purdue Boilermakers in West Lafayette tonight for a rematch of last month’s double-overtime victory by Purdue in Champaign. The game pits the Illini, who currently sit in first place in the Big Ten standings, against Purdue who sits tied with Wisconsin at No. 2 in the standings.

A win by Purdue would tie the two teams at the top at 10-3 in league play with just seven games left for both in the regular season. Of course, if Wisconsin beats Michigan State in the earlier game, it would be a three-way tie. A win by Illinois, leaves the Illini with an important, if slim, lead in the standings as the season quickly nears conclusion.

Needless to say, a lot rests on the results of the matchup. Last month, Purdue defeated Illinois in a matchup that saw Andre Curbelo return from a lengthy absence due to concussion protocols. The Illini struggled greatly on offense in the matchup, settling for 33 total three-point attempts as star center Kofi Cockburn struggled with foul trouble throughout the game, fouling out early in the first overtime. However, much of what was an issue in the first matchup will still be the same problems head coach Brad Underwood will need to solve in order to clinch a victory at Mackey Arena.

1. Center Play

Cockburn versus Trevion Williams and Zach Edey will be a major determining factor in this matchup. Cockburn looked overmatched against the more agile Edey last month. As a shorter big man with less of a strength advantage, Cockburn had a quiet performance by his standards with just 10 points and five rebounds before fouling out in the first overtime. He went just 3-for-9 from the field in fact.

If Edey and Williams can repeat the 20 and 14 point performances to remotely the same degree, then it will be bad news for Illinois. Edey also notched two blocks in the matchup and the two Purdue big men combined for 15 total rebounds as well, more than all of Illinois’s bigs combined.

2. Guard Play

Underwood needs to solve the riddle of how to guard Purdue’s Jaden Ivey and Sasha Stefanovic. The longer, faster, Ivey made a mockery of the smaller Illini guards trying to defend him. Ivey was able to take advantage of the guards with his fast drive off the dribble to beat the defenders into the lane and draw Cockburn into fouls. Ivey went 13-for-15 from the free throw line in Champaign and caused Cockburn’s fifth foul that sent the Illinois big man to the bench.

Stefanovic is also much larger than Illinois perimeter players and proved a tough assignment. The Illini’s reliance on an in-your face pressure scheme on the ball handler and less emphasis on off-ball aggression helped Stefanovic score a season high 22 points against Illinois. If the Illini are going to escape Mackey Arena with a win, the team has to come up with answers to Purdue’s guards.

3. Illinois’s Three-Point Shooting

While the Illini’s reliance on three-point shooting was part of the problem last time around versus Purdue, it also managed to save the team to a degree in forcing two overtimes. Purdue had a double digit lead at one time, but was unable to hold onto it in large part because of some hot three-point shooting that saw the Illini hit five three-pointers in the second half to help force overtime. It’s difficult to hold a team as good at three-point shooting as the Illini are to as low percentage as 36.4 percent as Purdue did last time out. However, if the Boilermakers want to avoid overtime then it will be necessary, especially if Cockburn is otherwise as silenced on offense as he was last time out and the Illini turn to deep shots to remedy.