WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Greetings from Mackey Arena, where we could get some major clarity in the Big Ten race Saturday.
No. 4 Purdue (22-3, 10-3) will be in the league driver's seat with a win today over Illinois (17-9, 9-4). The Boilermakers would, at worst, remain in a tie with Michigan State, whom they've already beaten on the road. Their toughest game left is a rematch here against the Spartans next Sunday.
Matt Painter's team has been red hot since a shaky first half against the Illini in Champaign on Jan. 19. The Boilermakers rallied for the 84-78 win in that game and haven't lost since. They're coming off an impressive 60-57 win at Ohio State on Wednesday and could be marching toward a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed status.
The Illini would be in the field of 65 if the tournament began today, but with an RPI of 71 entering Saturday's action, they can't feel entirely secure. Another big road win to add to their upset at Wisconsin 11 days ago would go along way to punching that ticket. But Illinois followed up its big win in Madison with a 19-point loss at home to Ohio State on Valentine's Day; it hasn't played since.
The Illini will have to find a way to slow down JaJuan Johnson today. The junior center had 24 points and 12 rebounds -- while going to the free throw line 15 times -- in the victory at Champaign. He has had five 20-point efforts during this eight-game winning streak. Bruce Weber will need better defensive efforts from big men Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole, who each fouled out of last month's loss to Purdue.