When I saw Illinois play in Indianapolis against Gonzaga, I made the observation that this yearís Illinois team was one of the best college basketball teams Iíve seen in a long time. Nothing I saw today made me change my mind. Theyíve got good shooters, theyíve got exceptional quickness, theyíve got great ball-handlers, they can rebound, theyíve got good depth (I thought Ingram kept them in the game in the first half) and they really get after you on the defensive end. To top it off, they are exceptionally well coached and it shows in the intelligent way they play the game. I thought they were good last year, but relatively undisciplined. This year, they play smart and really seem to value every possession. Given all that, I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised at the way Purdue competed against them. I told my wife on the way to the game that I thought the game was like going to war with a pistol when they other guy has a machine gun and to my surprise it looks like Purdueís pistol has at least turned into a semi-automatic instead of a six shooter. In the first half, Purdue got good looks on almost every possession, they hit the boards hard and they really competed well at the defensive end. As a result, they led 39-33 at the break and I think it was the first time all year that Illinois went in trailing at half time. Unfortunately for Purdue, Illinois did what most really good teams do when they are challenged, they kicked it up a notch in the 2nd half. All of a sudden, those easy looks Purdue was getting in the first half were contested and Illinois shut off the middle pretty effectively. On top of that, Dee Brown got going after not even taking a shot in the first half and his outside shooting (I think he was 4-of-4 from downtown during one stretch) was the biggest single factor in breaking the game open for Illinois. It was another tough loss for Purdue, but when you watch Illinois play itís a little easier to take because they are really fun to watch play.
Brandon McKnight Ė This was not one of Brandonís best games offensively. I think he missed three lay-ups and he had at least two passes that were ankle height that led to Purdue turnovers. Still, itís hard to fault a guy that gives everything he has when heís on the floor. He hounded Deron Williams basically all day and really kept him in check. Gene said before the game that he thought Brandon needed to relax more at the offensive end and just let the shots come. After watching today I have to agree that Brandon is pressing and trying to do too much.
Andrew Ford Ė Andrew started both halves today, but gave way fairly early on to Bryant Dillon. Andrew didnít score, but he did have three assists in nine minutes and did a reasonable job at the defensive end.
Carl Landry Ė Carlís biggest accomplishment today was that he managed to avoid serious foul trouble. That meant that he was able to log 36 minutes and score 15 points and pull down seven rebounds (five offensive) to go with two assists and a blocked shot. He did have a couple of bad turnovers, but Illinois was really focused on keeping him from getting the ball in the low post and I thought he did a good job taking what was available. He even stepped out and hit a three-pointer in the 2nd half.
Matt Kiefer Ė Matt came out on fire and scored 9 points in the first four minutes or so. He had one play where he faked a shot and then took it to the hole for an easy dunk and it was great to see him so energized. He did get into foul trouble and ended up playing only 26 minutes, but during that time he scored 17 points and pulled down six rebounds in perhaps his best offensive performance of the year. Like Carl, he needs to stay out of foul trouble if Purdue is going to compete for wins, but it looks to me like heís really working hard at it.
David Teague Ė Illinois made David a primary emphasis of their defense today. They basically had one guy shadowing him wherever he went and to Davidís credit he didnít get frustrated and start throwing up off balance shots like he was earlier in the year. He ended up playing 39 minutes and was really working his tail off at both ends of the floor. I would give him high marks for the effort heís giving.
Gary Ware Ė Gary came off the bench today and only played five minutes. He had one turnover and made a super block on a shot right at the end of the first half when Purdue desperately needed a stop.
Bryant Dillon Ė Bryant played the best game heís played all year today. He played 29 minutes and scored seven points and added five rebounds, five assists, one block and only two turnovers against some very heavy pressure from Illinois. It was really encouraging to see him play so well against such good competition.
Charles Davis Ė Charles got 13 minutes today and did some good work in those minutes. He had trouble finishing a couple of shots (it looked to me like he drew contact with no call), but he did have four rebounds, an excellent block, an assist and a turnover and I think everyone has to be happy with the contribution he is making considering his inexperience.
Xavier Price Ė I thought Xavier looked a little lost in the 1st half, but he came back in the 2nd half and played much better. He only played six minutes and didnít score, but he hustled and played solid defense.
Going into todayís game, I thought Purdue could win, but only if Illinois shot the ball poorly from outside. Illinois wasnít quite as hot as Wisconsin was last Wednesday, but they still managed to hit 11-of-22 from three-point range and once again five different players had three-pointers. Just like Wisconsin, Illinois actually shot the ball better from outside the arc than they did from inside. The three-point shot is not only hard to defend when youíre playing a team like Illinois, itís also a huge negative psychological factor when a team seems to be draining three-pointer after three-pointer. In the end analysis, what hurt Purdue more than anything else today was turnovers. Purdue had 13 (which isnít all that bad), but Illinois had only seven and those extra six possessions are huge when the game is as close as this game was for about 30 minutes.
Iím not one to take much solace in losing a game, but if there was ever a game that I didnít feel terrible about losing, todayís game was that game. In the over 40 years Iíve been watching Purdue play basketball, Iíve not seen too many Big 10 teams that were in the same league with this yearís Illinois team. This is a legitimate National Championship contender with multiple weapons. If they can avoid injuries, I think they have a chance to be one of the best teams the Big 10 has ever produced. I doubt that they will go undefeated, but they arenít going to lose very many times and itís going to take an awfully good effort by somebody to beat them because I donít think they are going to beat themselves. About the only real weakness I saw today was their free throw shooting and I suspect (without looking it up) that they are better than they showed today in that particular aspect of the game.
As for Purdue, Iím encouraged. I think this team just needs to get some wins. Itís so hard to maintain enthusiasm and confidence when youíre not winning that the biggest worry I have is that this team will stop competing. I havenít seen any signs of that at this point, but itís still a concern. To me, one of the good things to come out of this game today is that this team ought to be saying to themselves "Hey, we gave the No. 1 team in the country all they wanted. If we can just keep up this level of effort and intensity, good things are going to start happening." I remain convinced that this yearís team has enough talent to be competitive. I donít expect any miraculous turnaround, but I do think that they can compete with and beat just about anyone else in the Big 10 except Illinois. Wisconsin showed tonight against Indiana that they are an extremely beatable team when the three-point shots arenít falling and I suspect the same thing is true of teams like Minnesota, Ohio State, Indiana and Iowa. I think Iím realistic enough to know that this yearís Purdue team isnít going to be challenging for any Big 10 Titles, but thereís no reason why they canít beat some of the teams that are currently rated higher than they are.