Illini face young team in Purdue
The transition from a Purdue legend to the new blood appears to be more than smooth.
In his third season as Boilermakers basketball coach after one year as associate head coach, Matt Painter's four-man freshman class not only plays a key role in Purdue's performance this winter but provides long-range hope that the Boilers can return to power in the Big Ten Conference.
"At first, it hurt that coach Keady was going to be leaving,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "How do you recruit a kid? That's why the went with the plan of bringing in a successor (early). It helped, but you're still recruiting two or three years in advance.
"This class was just huge for Matt. It set the foundation for the program. He still needs a couple more pieces. If these kids continue to improve over the next couple of years, they're already up in the top half of the league, but they will be one of the favorites in the league as these guys proceed in their careers.''
Illinois, which ended a five-game losing streak with a 75-57 win at home against Michigan on Wednesday, plays at Purdue in a Big Ten game today, when the Boilers will use a young and small-ball lineup that's helped fill the seats in Mackey Arena.
Purdue won five of its last six games, and a victory would give Purdue a 4-1 start in league play for the first time in four seasons. The locals are beginning to notice. Today's game is the second sellout of the season.
While sophomore guard Keaton Grant made major improvement from last season -- raising his average from 4.4 points per game to a team-high 11.4 and improving his shooting from 26.6 percent on the 3-point line to 47.1 -- the Boilers lean on the freshman class of forward JaJuan Johnson plus guards E'Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel and Scott Martin.
The lanky Johnson, whose frame will remind Illini fans of Mike Davis or Mike Tisdale, was the first to commit. Hummel and Martin, both 6-foot-8 with more mobility than power, were high school teammates at Valparaiso.
Moore also showed interest in Illinois, but the Illini already had a commitment at the time from Eric Gordon, who later signed with Indiana. Moore and East Chicago defeated Gordon and Indianapolis North Central 87-83 for the Class 4A state title game last spring.
"You never know how things are going to go in recruiting, just like you saw with a few things at Illinois,'' Painter said. "Once one of the young guys committed, you get a domino effect. All four of them played on the same junior all-star team. Three of them were on the same AAU team. Two of them were on the same high school team.
"Once JaJuan committed, they were all taking about schools. That helped the next two guys, Moore and Hummel, decide. Then Martin made his decision.''
Grant scored a career-high 22 points in the 67-62 win at Iowa Wednesday. He was 4-for-6 from the 3-point line. The four Purdue freshmen combined for 33 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists and four steals.
"Moore came in with the most publicity, but he might have started the slowest,'' Weber said. "Now I think he's starting to play better. Hummel and Martin are two very smart guys. When they go small, they spread you out and use the dribble with Martin and Hummel. Johnson has given them really good minutes.''
Purdue isn't afraid of going small, playing four or sometimes five perimeter players while attempting to cause matchup problems. But the smaller Boilers face a challenge in Illini senior big men Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle, who accounted for 38 points and 17 rebounds in the win over Michigan.
"We have to be able to handle Shaun Pruitt, keep Brian Randle in check and not let the perimeter guys go wild and hit five, six or seven 3-pointers,'' Painter said. "We wished we were playing Illinois about three weeks ago. Everybody on that team wants the record to be better.
"They played well at Indiana and Wisconsin, they beet Michigan by close to 20 points. They're playing good basketball right now. Our guys have to understand the position they're in with their backs to the wall. They will fight, scrap and come right at us.''
While Illinois gained some confidence from beating Michigan, the Illini also draw upon the improved play over the last three games. Illinois showed more effort and intensity in losses to Wisconsin and Indiana, then carried over the improvement to Michigan.
"It helps a lot,'' Randle said. "It's a different mindset. It's a better understanding of how hard to play and what it takes to compete and go for a win. A win definitely helps, but I think the mindset is a lot different.''
The next step for the Illini is taking it on the road against Purdue and its freshman class.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.
Illinois (9-9, 1-4) vs. Purdue (12-5, 3-1)
1 p.m., Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Ind., (ESPN, Illini Sports Network)
ILLINOIS (9-9, 1-4) ppg rpg
F Brian Randle Sr. 6-8 10.2 5.4
C Shaun Pruitt Sr. 6-10 12.8 7.8
G Demetri McCamey Fr. 6-3 6.4 2.1
G Calvin Brock Jr. 6-5 8.3 3.7
G Trent Meacham Jr. 6-2 10.2 2.6
PURDUE (12-5, 3-1) ppg rpg
F JaJuan Johnson Fr. 6-10 6.4 4.1
G Chris Kramer So. 6-3 7.9 3.5
G Keaton Grant So. 6-4 11.4 3.3
G Marcus Green Jr. 6-4 4.6 3.0
G E'Twaun Moore Fr. 6-3 10.0 3.9
Noteworthy: Purdue leads the all-time series 86-81 over Illinois, 86-81, and the Boilermakers carry a 55-27 advantage in games played in West Lafayette. Purdue defeated Illinois 64-47 at Mackey Arena last season, ending a four-game Illini winning streak in the series in the only meeting between the two teams last year. . . Illinois plays three of its next four games on the road. . . Brock is averaging 12 points over the last four games on 62.5-percent shooting. . . Green had a career-high 22 points in the 75-68 win over Ohio State last weekend. . . Illinois coach Bruce Weber was an Purdue assistant when Purdue coach Matt Painter played for the Boilers. Painter served five years as the lead assistant under Weber at Southern Illinois. . .
Key for Illini: Cause problems inside with Pruitt and Randle, two big bodies that Purdue may find difficult to defend.
Key for Boilermakers: Find a big game from the perimeter. Green and Grant each posted a career high in the last two games.
Key quote: "I would say we were the best 8-9 team in the country. Now we're the best 9-9 team in the country.'' -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber.
Prediction: Purdue 68, Illinois 66