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Illinois basketball preview: Purdue

This game could not have been scheduled better if the Big Ten had tried. Two 19-11 teams sitting firmly on the NCAA Tourney bubble, looking for win #20 and ready to beat each other up to get it. Whether you’re cheering for the Illini or Purdue (and lacking common sense, like our publisher, Mr. Seth Fein — a known Purdue fan), this is going to be a great game.

I underestimate Purdue before Big Ten season started, but with good reason: they lost to North Florida and Gardner-Webb. They flipped the script in conference play, however, and helped increase the stature of the league this season (if the Big Ten gets the most teams in the NCAA Tourney I’d credit Purdue for that, whether they’re in or not).

The key for Purdue’s second-half rally has been a deep squad that work well in Matt Painter’s system. Purdue gets an average of at least 10 minutes per game from 10 different players, and each of them has bought into Painter’s physical style of play. As they’ve gelled they’ve gotten to be as tough as nearly any Big Ten team.

As seen in the last Illinois-Purdue match-up, however, the Boilermakers are vulnerable when they commit too many fouls. Illinois got 24 free throw attempts and Purdue got 9 in their last meeting; Illinois won by 9. This is a common problem for Purdue (outlined at Hammer and Rails) and something Illinois has exploited in other teams (e.g., Nebraska on Wednesday). Of course, the opposite would be equally injurious to Illinois. If Nnanna Egwu picks up 2 fouls in the first 10 minutes of the game, the Illini are in a tough spot.

This game will be much more fun than just watching who gets to the free throw line the most. But don’t count that out as a major factor in the outcome of the game, and potentially in who makes the NCAA Tournament, perhaps at the expense of the other team.

My prediction: Illinois 65 – Purdue 60

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