CHAMPAIGN — The national consensus is that the Big Ten Conference is down this basketball season. And while that may be true, the league does have two of the nation’s top 10 teams.
Illinois is facing both of them this week and two nights after getting No. 2 Michigan State on the road, No. 9 Purdue comes to State Farm Center.
While Michigan State pulled away in the second half Tuesday with a flurry of superior athletes and quality depth, Purdue arrives for Thursday's 6 p.m. contest (Fox Sports 1) looking to do the same with its enormous front court and an array of deadly 3-point shooters.
In each game, Illinois (13-16, 3-13 Big Ten) is facing the challenge to keep pace despite not being able to match the Spartans’ athleticism or Purdue’s imposing size.
Which of these Big Ten powers is the better team is a question to be answered next month when the NCAA Tournament tends to figure those things out.
But in Purdue (24-5, 13-3), Illinois has the unenviable task of having to decide which is the greater threat — Purdue’s massive one-two punch inside or its uncanny ability to bomb away from 3-point range.
“It’s kind of pick your poison with them,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said. “Are you going to give them threes, which means you double-team (Isaac) Haas or run someone at him? Or are you going to let him play one-on-one in the post? That’s something we’re still figuring out. We’re sure not going to win any wrestling matches with him.”
Haas begins the dilemma every Purdue opponent must consider. At 7-foot-2, 290 pounds, he is what Underwood calls, “something very unique in college basketball. He’s so massive and very efficient in the paint.”
And he’s backed up by 7-foot-3, 250-pound Matt Haarms.
Haas is the better scorer, while Haarms the superior shot-blocker. But between them they can dictate the action near the basket and be an intimidating force to a player like Leron Black, Illinois’ inside scorer but a full seven inches shorter than Haas.
Brash Illini freshman Trent Frazier, who is a slender, 6-foot-1 point guard, sounded undaunted about taking the ball directly at Purdue’s towering centers.
“I don’t really care about the size,” he said Wednesday before practice. “I have a lot of fight in me. Obviously, they’re going to try to box me but I don’t focus on that. I just keep attacking and doing what I do.”
If all Purdue had was imposing size inside, it would be one thing. But defending Purdue becomes a much greater problem because the Boilermakers rank eighth nationally in 3-point percentage (41.5 percent).
The inside-outside double threat has kept the Boilermakers high in the national rankings.
Vincent Edwards, a senior anchor for the Purdue team, missed the team’s last game with a sprained ankle and is listed as a “game time decision” for Thursday.
Even without him, the team’s other Edwards has carried a heavy load. Carsen Edwards leads the team in scoring and is coming off a 27-point performance in a 76-73 victory over Penn State.
“He scores with ease,” Underwood said. “We have to be very solid on him. And Mathias is one of the elite catch-and-shoot guys in this league.”
Dakota Mathias has made 73 3-pointers this season, the most of any Purdue player.
Underwood said Michael Finke has now passed some of the concussion protocol tests that could clear his return to action after missing the last four games. He was not certain, however, if Finke would play against the Boilers.