Purdue visits No. 15 Illinois in matchup of defense-minded teams

·3 min read

Purdue lost more times during the 2019-20 season than it cares to remember. Of those 15 defeats, though, none was more lopsided than the ones administered by Illinois.

The Illini suffocated the Boilermakers 63-37 in Champaign before piling up 50 second-half points to earn a 79-62 win during the rematch in West Lafayette. To be sure, Purdue's players have not forgotten -- at least the ones who were in the mix last year.

These losses figure to be uppermost in their minds as the Boilermakers (7-4, 2-2 Big Ten) prepare for their visit to No. 15 Illinois (7-3, 3-1) on Saturday.

While Illinois retains the vast majority of its roster -- led by preseason All-American Ayo Dosunmu (24.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game) and 7-footer Kofi Cockburn (17.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg) -- Purdue coach Matt Painter has been integrating five freshmen into the Boilermakers' 10-man rotation.

Brandon Newman, Zach Edey, Jaden Ivey, Mason Gillis and Ethan Morton each average double figures in minutes, with Newman starting every game and Gillis starting the last six.

And each time they hit the floor, they wind up learning an outsized percentage of the team's lessons. During a Tuesday visit to No. 14 Rutgers, the Boilermakers hung right with the Ron Harper Jr.-less Scarlet Knights, only to fall 81-76 as Rutgers scored on all seven of its possessions in the final four minutes.

"It's not like they beat us by 20," Painter said after the game. "It's a (one or two)-possession game, and they made a couple more shots that we did. We just couldn't get enough stops in the second half, especially after we put ourselves in a position to win the game."

Then Painter became more animated.

"We have to be better than this. Like, if you expect to beat a quality team, a Top 15 team, you've just got to be better on the defensive end. You've got to make it harder than what we did. If you've got some quickness, if you can move laterally, just have some pride and move your feet and keep the ball in front of you.

"You just keep working on it. You just put in the time and keep working. And it doesn't come right away. It just doesn't. You've got to put time into it. You've got to watch film and see your mistakes and the things you're struggling with. You just keep working at it."

Painter particularly frets about his defense's struggle to keep the ball out of the middle -- its inability to force ballhandlers into help defenders or toward the sideline.

Those skills would be particularly useful against Illinois, which derives so much of its offense from slashes to the basket by Dosunmu and freshman Andre Curbelo (9.9 ppg, 4.4 apg). They also find success working pick-and-rolls with Cockburn.

However, Illinois coach Brad Underwood, like Painter, knows which end of the floor matters most. There's a reason the Illini allow opponents to shoot just 41.1 percent from the field and 30.2 percent on 3-pointers, though they weren't quite up to that standard in their most recent game, a 69-60 win over Indiana on Dec. 26.

Dosunmu has scored 30 points in each of the past two games.

"We talk about how offense will win you games, but defense will win you championships," Underwood said. "You've got to close things out with your defense and your rebounding."

--Field Level Media