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Damonte Dodd, A.J. Hammons

Purdue center A.J. Hammons shoots in a Jan. 10 game against Maryland in West Lafayette, Ind. Hammons is one of two 7-footers the Boilermakers will send to the floor against Illinois on Wednesday night in Champaign.

CHAMPAIGN — On Sunday, Indiana stormed the State Farm Center with one of the smallest lineups in college basketball.

With 6-9 forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea sidelined by injury, the Hoosiers’ tallest starter was 6-foot-7. But as University of Illinois coach John Groce said Tuesday, “They played five guards.”

Wednesday night, the other Big Ten Conference team from the state of Indiana comes to town with a lineup that looks drastically different.

Purdue (11-7, 3-2) brings its twin towers, 7-foot, 261-pound A.J. Hammons and 7-2, 297-pound freshman Isaac Haas. It’s a combination that will change the skyline for Illini center Nnanna Egwu’s.

“They start a 7-footer and a 7-footer comes off the bench,” Egwu said Tuesday. “That’s unique. It’s all about being the more physical team. I think whoever is the more physical team is going to win the game, period.”

Egwu is coming off one of his least effective games in an 80-74 loss to Indiana that dropped Illinois to 12-7 and 2-4. He played 27 minutes and finished with no points and two rebounds while battling foul trouble.

Egwu is closing in on the school record for blocked shots and Groce doesn’t want his quest for the goal to be a distraction, especially Wednesday night when Egwu becomes a key player against Purdue’s extraordinary size.

“I want him to be disciplined and not hunt blocked shots,” Groce said. “I think it weighs on you when people talk about it. I don’t want him trying to block 3-point shots and running around like a chicken with its head off. The other day he over-helped a little.”

Egwu and fellow center Maverick Morgan will be asked to defend Purdue’s big men before they ever get their hands on the ball. And Purdue will make getting the ball to Hammons and Haas a priority, Groce said.

“They are huge and they’re great at trying to establish post position early,” Groce said. “If you wait to play defense until they catch the ball, you’re done. It’s like Nerf hoops.

“You have to do your work early against those guys and that’s easier said than done. They have good hands, touch, moves and counter moves.”

Purdue also has dangerous 3-point shooters, including Kendall Stephens, son of former Purdue great Everett Stephens. Stephens has made 49 3-pointers, second only to Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell in the Big Ten.

With Purdue’s size, it remains to be seen how Illinois will use 6-7 forward Leron Black. Against Indiana, when Egwu was in foul trouble, Groce played Black at center.

“I just have to continue to rebound regardless of their size,” Black said. “That’s what my team needs me to do. That’s how I can help.”

Groce said Black has earned more playing time because he has started to understand his defensive assignments.

Rice update: Rayvonte Rice had surgery on his broken hand two weeks ago. Groce isn’t setting a timetable for the return of his leading scorer, but said things are moving in the right direction.

“He looks great and was shooting one-handed yesterday,” Groce said. “I would say he’s on track and hopefully a little ahead.”



Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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