JaJuan Johnson snapped out of a personal three-game funk last month at Illinois, and with it he helped Purdue end a three-game slide.
Considering how well Johnson has continued to play, it’s easy to see why the fourth-ranked Boilermakers haven’t lost since.
A tie atop the Big Ten standings awaits Purdue if it can extend its winning streak to nine games Saturday afternoon with a visit from the Fighting Illini, winners of three straight conference road games.
The Boilermakers (22-3, 10-3) seemed to be watching their Big Ten title aspirations slip away early, as they lost three straight conference games after winning their first two.
Johnson’ struggles were the common thread in those defeats. While Robbie Hummel and E’Twaun Moore combined to average 45.0 points during the losing streak, Johnson was held to 6.0 points per game.
Johnson broke out of his slump with a visit to Champaign on Jan. 19, and Purdue hasn’t stopped rolling since. He had 24 points and 12 rebounds in an 84-78 win over Illinois (17-9, 9-4), and he’s continued to be the brightest star of the Boilermakers’ Big Three.
Johnson has averaged 19.6 points and 7.5 rebounds during the eight-game winning streak, and on Wednesday he helped Purdue record a second consecutive road win over a top-10 opponent. Eight days after scoring 19 points in a win at then-No. 10 Michigan State, Johnson had 24 in a 60-57 victory at ninth-ranked Ohio State.
The Buckeyes held Johnson to a season-low four points during their win in West Lafayette last month.
“I felt like the last game we played it wasn’t one of my best games,” Johnson said. “I thought I had to get more involved.”
Purdue can pull into a first-place tie with the Spartans with a win Saturday, potentially setting up a showdown for the regular-season league crown Feb. 28 at Mackey Arena.
Also in the mix, should the Boilermakers continue to win, is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“(Beating Ohio State) is a huge win for us,” Johnson said. “This puts us closer to our goal of winning the Big Ten championship.”
Illinois isn’t out of the title chase, either, but it’ll have to play much better than it did in its latest game to stay there. Three days before Purdue’s tight win at Ohio State, the Buckeyes rolled past the Illini 72-53 in Champaign.
No Illini player scored in double figures as Bruce Weber’s team shot a season-low 34.3 percent.
“Before we looked up we had a big deficit to look at,” Illinois forward Bill Cole said. “They just kept raining those 3s in, and it was kind of downhill from there.”
That performance was a stark contrast to how the Illini looked Feb. 9 at Wisconsin. Demetri McCamey scored 27 points and Mike Tisdale added 19 as Illinois pulled off a rare win in Madison, beating the then-No. 11 Badgers 63-56.
The Illini have held opponents to 57.3 points per game in winning their last three games away from home.
While McCamey (team-high 15.6 points per game, conference-best 6.5 assists) must typically step up for Illinois to win, contributions from D.J. Richardson may be equally significant. The Illini are 9-1 when the freshman guard scores at least 14 points.
It was Tisdale, though, who keyed a big upset in Illinois’ last trip to Mackey. The junior center had 18 points on Dec. 30, 2008, as the Illini knocked off No. 9 Purdue 71-67 in overtime.
Moore led the Boilermakers with 17 points, while Johnson had 16 points and 15 rebounds.