CHAMPAIGN, Illinois – It's one step forward and two steps back for Purdue, the youngest team in the Big Ten.
Game after game in recent weeks, the Boilermakers have shown why coach Matt Painter is excited about the future, but also why he is equally uncertain about the present. The Boilers fell to No. 15 Illinois 66-58 tonight, letting a six-point second-half lead get away with seven turnovers in a 5:58 stretch. It was the second straight game in which the Boilermakers came back from double digits down only to lose late, joining Tuesday's defeat at Rutgers.
The inconsistency that has plagued this youthful Purdue team was never on more stark display than in the second half. The Boilermakers opened the period with one of their best runs of the season, scoring the first 16 points after halftime and holding one of the premier offensive teams in the country scoreless for more than four minutes.
Just as quickly, the run was over and Purdue lapsed into some bad habits, throwing poor passes, letting Illinois get into transition and giving up drive-and-kick 3-pointers. The Fighting Illini embarked on a 20-5 run to go up 53-44 and they never trailed again.
Painter implied that his team is in something of a chicken-and-egg scenario. It needs to believe it can win close games on the road like this against good teams, but to believe it can, it needs to do so first. The Boilermakers are 0-3 on the road in Big Ten play, all against top 15 opponents.
"You want to learn from the games that you lose, you have to be able to earn the right (to win)," Painter said. "When you get into the game against Rutgers and you have a chance to win coming down the stretch and you don't and then the same things happen here, you have to earn the right to know how to win those games, you have to play better."
There were some obvious signs of the continued growth of this team, especially on the defensive end. The Boilermakers held Illinois, which came in averaging 87 points, to its lowest point total of the season. Freshman center Zach Edey was terrific on the defensive end, blocking three shots and providing a glimpse of the destructive force he can be, while fellow center Trevion Williams battled star Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn to a draw.
Still, there were too many times when Illinois guards were able to get into the lane and draw the defense, creating open 3-pointers. There were too many transition baskets off of turnovers. The game probably wouldn't have been as close as it was had the Fighting Illini not gone 9 for 22 from the foul line. There are signs of improvement, but it's hard to tell that to a team on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
"I don't know," guard Sasha Stefanovic said of whether there has been improvement on defense. "Personally, for me, it doesn't feel like that whenever we lose. They were able to get to the rim, able to get some lobs, easy shots, easy 3s. There's definitely a lot of places that we can work on the defensive end."
One problem for Purdue is that it doesn't have a core group of 6-7 players that Painter trusts to play big minutes. There are at least 9-10 Boilermakers who can contribute, but Painter is looking for some of them to really separate themselves and earn the right to play all the time in important moments. Outside of Williams, Eric Hunter Jr. (who was 0 for 6 from the field and did not score tonight) and Stefanovic, that hasn't happened yet. The Purdue coach is still working to find the right group that can keep momentum going and cut down on inconsistency. That's been a season-long process and it's nowhere near over.
"I like all of our players, but you want them to separate through their production," Painter said. "And we just haven't had separation. And that's guys that have started for us, guys who have come off the bench, older guys, younger guys. ... You want that consistency and we just haven't gotten that. So when you have that inconsistent stretch and then all of a sudden you have a great stretch with that (19-0) run, but yet they're getting tired too. So you have to give them a blow there.
"Then when we did that, we had some breakdowns. ... Until you get that group that you have ultimate trust with, you're searching for that. That's what we're doing, we're searching for that. ... When you have inconsistent play, everyone wants the coach to have the answer. I want to have the answer too, but it's hard, it really is."
"We've just gotta keep growing," Painter concluded. "I like our pieces, I like our guys, we just gotta be better together."