CHAMPAIGN, Illinois – Purdue's first game of 2021 will be a difficult test. The Boilermakers have a second straight top 15 road game when they take on No. 15 Illinois at the State Farm Center this evening.
The Boilers are coming off an 81-76 loss Tuesday to No. 14 Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey, and are looking to get back on track against the upper tier of the Big Ten after losing games against the Scarlet Knights and Iowa in the last couple of weeks. Eventually you're going to have beat some ranked teams in this league if you want to contend for a conference title or even an NCAA Tournament appearance. The Boilers already have a win against No. 25 Ohio State at home, but they haven't picked up any big road victories in limited opportunities yet this season. They could change that tonight and get the new year off to a flying start.
If they're going to earn that road victory, step No. 1 will be defending the 3-point line. Four straight Purdue opponents have made at least 10 shots from beyond the arc, including Rutgers, which went 11 for 21. The Scarlet Knights are not a great 3-point shooting team, but Montez Mathis, a merely decent shooter coming into the game, went 5 for 5 from deep to help Rutgers hold on for the win. Illinois is far better than "decent" at shooting the ball. The Fighting Illini are fifth in the country in 3-point shooting at 42.3% as a team and guard Da'Monte Williams is hitting an absurd 69.6% of his 3s, including 6 for 7 in the last three games. Purdue will have to keep the ball out of the paint as often as possible to avoid needing to over-help.
Illinois is a dynamic offensive team beyond simply shooting the ball well, however. Guard Ayo Dosunmu is maybe the Big Ten's most complete player this side of Luka Garza, averaging 24.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists while shooting better than 44% from beyond the arc. He forms a formidable inside-outside duo with reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Kofi Cockburn, who is an absolute load in the middle. The 7-foot, 285-pound Cockburn averages 17.2 points and 9.9 rebounds while shooting better than 65% from the floor. He is one of the few big men against whom the Boilermakers won't have a distinct advantage this year.
The battle in the middle could be fierce today, with Purdue's Trevion Williams and Zach Edey trying to control the glass and keep Cockburn from dominating down low. Williams is coming off a fantastic game against Rutgers in which he went 10 for 12 for 21 points and 12 rebounds, but he only shot one free throw. He'll probably try to get into Cockburn's chest and get him in foul trouble. Cockburn will try to do the same thing and Edey will have to play fundamentally-sound defense to avoid fouling. That is probably the matchup to watch tonight. Illinois is No. 3 nationally in average rebounding margin and Purdue can't afford to get wiped off the glass, especially with the way Illinois piles up points.
This is another game where the Boilermakers need to embrace the physicality, to borrow a phrase that Matt Painter likes to use. Illinois is tough and experienced and will try to push the young Boilers around. If Purdue pushes back, it can make this a game. If not, it will fall below the .500 mark in conference play.