The non-conference season left many of the Purdue faithful a little disheartened. The potential promised by the influx of talent had yet to be realized, leaving Purdue with a 6-6 record heading into the Big 10 Conference season. Making matters worse is the fact that the Big 10 is perhaps the strongest it has been in years, a harsh reality that this team would have to face right away, as the first three conference games on the schedule were all against ranked opponents. Starting things off was Illinois at Mackey. The subtext surrounding this game was thick with apprehension. Purdue had owned Illinois in recent memory, winning the last seven games of the series headed into the opener; no member of the Illinois team had ever beaten Purdue. But this Illinois team looked to be their strongest in years. Would recent history play out again Wednesday night, or would Illinois punish a weakened Purdue team?
Anyone claiming to know how the Big 10 opener would play out would have been lying. Despite the fact that Illinois came into this game as the surprise dominant team of the Big 10 (their only loss was to a top-15 ranked Missouri team on a neutral court), advanced statistics seemed to put the teams on equal pegging. Ken Pom predicted a one-point Illinois win, giving each team a 50% chance of winning. The official line on the game was a mere 2.5 points in favor of the Fightin Illini. Even given the disparity in record, Illinois was a surprisingly good matchup for Purdue. Their offensive strengths corresponded with Purdue’s defensive strengths, suggesting that Purdue had a shot to keep the game close. And who knows, if you keep a game close you may end up with a chance to win it. And that is exactly what happened.
The offensive explosion to start the game was nothing short of surprising. Both teams came out aggressive, willing to push the tempo and knock down shots. The crowd was fired up, especially after Jacob Lawson flew in on an offensive rebound and dunked the put-back with both hands three minutes into the contest. From the tip it was clear that it would be a tough game, as Big 10 conference games are wont to be. Ronnie Johnson got into an especially heated battle with breakout sophomore guard Tracy Abrams for the Illini. They were both up in each other’s jersey up and down the court, neither willing to grant an inch to their opponent. Likewise, guards on both sides of the ball played with an uncommon intensity, never devolving into something dirty or unsportsmanlike, just the type of intense, aggressive defense that would bring a tear to Gene Keady’s eye.
The difference in the game, however, was not the toughness of the guards, it was the toughness (or lack thereof, in Illinois’ case) of the front-court. Purdue’s best big men are young, Jacob Lawson the sophomore and AJ Hammons the freshman, but they did not play as such. Lawson, especially, threw himself into the mix frequently, using his superior athleticism and improved strength to muscle his way to seven rebounds. AJ Hammons had a much quieter game, tying a season-low two points in the game, but he was also a monster on the boards, bringing down seven rebounds and blocking three shots. His impact was felt whenever he was on the court, whether he was scoring or not. The Illini simply did not have anyone who could match his strength and size; he was such a handful on the glass that he drew more than a few fouls on the Illini front-court as they tried to block him out.
Unfortunately, he also found himself committing some fouls of his own. He tied his season-high of four fouls, three of which came on the offensive end, two of those as he fought for offensive rebounds. Not exactly what you want to see, but for a guy who has had to answer questions about his aggressiveness, it was in a way nice to see.
What was not nice to see was him sitting on the bench with early foul trouble. Enter Travis Carroll. For all the grief he has absorbed from segments of Purdue’s fan base, he has found a role on the team where he can be a reliable third option behind Lawson and Hammons. Unfortunately, he would have to do a little bit more than just act as a competent relief big; he played 18 minutes in the game, the majority of those minutes coming in the first half. He did not light the world on fire, but he did what he needed to do, providing a solid performance that allowed Hammons and Lawson to sit on the bench without risking the game getting away from Purdue.
Aiding Purdue in that matter was the meek effort put forth by the Illinois front line. I have crazy respect for Nnanna Egwe, the 6’11′ sophomore center out of Chicago that Matt Painter coveted. Egwe blocked five shots in the game, using his remarkable length and improved basketball IQ to disrupt Purdue’s slashers as they approached the basket. But for all his effort blocking shots, he was not able to make much of an impact in any other aspect of the game, managing to only go for three rebounds and three points in 26 minutes.
He was not helped by any of the other Illini bigs, as they, as a group, looked overwhelmed by AJ Hammons’ size and Lawson’s energy on both ends of the court. Illinois’ three main bigs – Nnanna, Tyler Griffey (6’9”), and Sam McLaurin (6’8”) – combined for a horrid seven rebounds in 73 minutes. Purdue’s bigs – Hammons, Lawson, Carroll, and Donnie Hale – combined for 20 boards in 74 minutes. That right there was the game.
If you want to win in the Big 10, especially on the road, you have to be tough. And Wednesday night Purdue was tough. Whether it be Lawson fighting for rebounds, DJ Byrd making a series of impressive hustle plays (and and-one off an in-bounds play, an offensive rebound after two missed Lawson free throws, a crucial three when Purdue’s offensive stagnated…totally making up for two mind-numbingly dumb in-bounds passes. Water under the bridge, all is forgiven), Ronnie Johnson shaking off some missed jumpers and attacking the basket – committing only one turnover to boot, or Purdue’s guards not giving an inch of defense, this team played tough. This is the team that we had been promised at the start of the season; this game was a demonstration of what this team is capable of when all the pieces fall in place.
Next up on the docket is Michigan State, coached by a man who prides himself in defining his teams by their toughness. Illinois staggered when punched in the mouth, you can be sure that Michigan State will do little other than smile and return fire. The Spartans are a talented bunch this year, lead by two players recruited by Purdue, two kids that Painter was ohsoclose to landing. No matter, Purdue has the talent to play them close. And if Wednesday night’s game did anything other than just put Purdue over the .500 mark for the first time all season (yes, you read that correctly), it showed this team that when you play hard, stick to your strengths and trust the system, you can compete with anyone.