Big Ten play has been known for the physical nature of the conference's defensive-minded teams for years, though Illinois coach John Groce has instituted a largely perimeter-based offensive system that is getting rave reviews.
The 11th-ranked Fighting Illini will be tested immediately in their league opener Wednesday night when they visit a Purdue team that has won seven straight meetings and ranks near the top of the conference defending the 3-point shot.Groce has Illinois (13-1) off to an unexpectedly strong start in his first season, with its only loss coming to No. 12 Missouri 82-73 on a neutral court Dec. 22. That game marked the Illini's worst performance from 3-point range this season as they shot 25.0 percent.They have taken at least 23 3-pointers 12 times and lead the nation in 3-point makes (132) while ranking second in attempts (358) despite setting season lows for both by going 4 of 15 in Saturday's 81-79 win over Auburn in Chicago.Groce, who was an assistant at Ohio State from 2004-08, knows the Illini can expect some tough defense during Big Ten play."Home, road, all of them are fistfights," Groce said. "It's a great league. Toughness is really, really important. Execution is really important and then players making plays is important."Purdue (6-6) is off to a rough start, but it has allowed the fewest 3-pointers in the conference (54) while ranking second to Iowa with opponents hitting only 29.3 percent from long range.The Boilermakers, though, gave up seven 3s for the second straight game in Saturday's 73-66 home victory over William & Mary. They'll have to contend with a deep Illini team that features seven players averaging at least 20 minutes.Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul, second in the Big Ten averaging 18.7 points, missed all five of his 3-point attempts against Auburn, while sophomore guard Tracy Abrams finished with a career-high 27 points.Abrams' previous career best came in a pair of 22-point efforts, including during a 67-62 home loss to Purdue in the most recent meeting Feb. 15."I just feel like we have a lot more weapons and a lot more confidence, not only in myself but the guys that I play with," said Paul, who has hit only 8 of 30 shots over his last two. "They come in with the mindset that they're going to compete every game and play hard."Illinois ranks 11th in the 12-team conference giving up 65.1 points per game but will face a team Purdue coach Matt Painter said has been stagnant on offense at times.The Boilermakers committed a season-low seven turnovers in their last game, though they rank 11th in the league hitting only 42.0 percent from the field while shooting a conference-worst 27.1 percent from 3-point range.Junior guard Terone Johnson has been a bit of a bright spot, though, averaging 14.1 points over his last eight after scoring a team-best 16 on Saturday."We still have to be more consistent (offensively)," Painter said. "We still have empty possessions at times when we're not even remotely trying to do what we've worked on."Purdue likely will need one of its better performances to upset the Illini, who haven't won in the series since a 66-48 home victory Feb. 8, 2009.