It’s been almost 13 years since Purdue won a regular-season Big Ten championship. This season’s squad appears poised to end that drought.
Preseason league favorites, the ninth-ranked Boilermakers begin their quest for the school’s first title since the 1995-1996 season when they open Big Ten play at home against Illinois on Tuesday night.
With five starters returning from last season’s conference runner-up, Purdue (11-2) certainly has enough talent to make a run toward a Big Ten crown again this season. The Boilermakers went 15-3 in the league in 2007-08, but finished one game back of Wisconsin, winners of both the regular season and tournament titles.
Taking a six-game winning streak into its conference opener, Purdue’s goal is simple, but getting there might not be easy.
“I’m really excited,” said forward Robbie Hummel, who joins fellow sophomore E’Twaun Moore averaging a team-leading 14.4 points per game. “The Big Ten will be a dog fight to win and that’s our goal…Going into the Big Ten, we’re 11-2 and we know we can be better.”
The Boilermakers, whose only two losses this season came in consecutive games to then-No. 11 Oklahoma and then-No.4 Duke, look to extend their home conference winning streak to 14.
Purdue has won its last two home games and three regular-season contests against Illinois, but lost 74-67 to the Illini in the Big Ten tournament last season. Illinois (12-1) enters having won six in a row since losing 76-74 at home to Clemson on Dec. 2.
“It’s definitely a big game,” Moore said. “It’s always important to get off to a good start in the Big Ten.”
Moore had 14 points while Hummel added nine and 11 rebounds in a 59-45 home victory over Valparaiso on Sunday in the Boilermakers’ final non-conference tune-up.
While Hummel, the preseason Big Ten player of the year, averaged 9.0 points in three games against Illinois in 2007-08, Moore averaged 18.3 while shooting 21-for-37 from the field.
Purdue wasn’t terribly sharp, shooting a season-low 36.4 percent, but held the Crusaders to 28 percent shooting after the break and one field goal in the final seven minutes of the contest.
“We got shots, they just didn’t fall and we started to press,” Boilermakers coach Matt Painter said. “We were forcing things. Fortunately, our defense kept us in the game.”
The Boilermakers may need to count on their defense against Illinois, which is second in the conference shooting 48.9 percent and has four players averaging in double figures.
Paced by guards Demetri McCamey and Trent Meacham - co-leaders at 12.2 points per game on the season - Illinois is averaging 77.0 points in its last four contests, which includes a 75-59 rout of then-No. 25 Missouri last Tuesday in St. Louis.
Meacham had 16 points in a 62-53 win over Eastern Michigan on Sunday, but was overshadowed by 7-foot-1 Mike Tisdale’s career-high 25 points.
While the Illini are shooting the ball well, they continue to be one of the nation’s top defensive teams allowing 55.8 points per game, slightly better than the 56.0 yielded by the Boilermakers.
Illinois, which visits No. 23 Michigan on Sunday, has not beaten a Top 10 opponent on the road since winning 84-70 at No. 8 Kansas on Dec. 18, 1999.