A noteworthy factoid prefacing this forthcoming week in Illini basketball: Brad Underwood has never beat Purdue. Or Wisconsin.
In fact, Greg Gard has never lost to Illinois, period. Whether Underwood or John Groce led the team, Wisconsin’s current streak (15 wins in a row) remained intact.
Matt Painter is 17-7 all-time against the Illini. Despite being the closest campus to Urbana, Purdue is not a “protected rival.” Count your lucky stars.
The Illini and Boilermakers met only once in each of Underwood’s first two years. Now they’ll face each other twice in a month.
These streaks amplify the point that Illinois doesn’t play good teams in the B1G Tournament. Playing & losing on Wednesday meant the Illini charter flight departed DC and NYC before B1G contenders left their campuses. Playing and winning last year’s Wednesday nightcap meant the best B1G teams arrived at the United Center in time to see Iowa end Underwood’s season for the second year in a row.
Tonight, the Paint Crew brings its worst team in years. Illinois has a chance to win. Both teams are 9-5 overall, but (get this) Purdue is a far worse shooting team than the Illini. Illinois is in the top 50 nationally in FG percentage. The Boilers aren’t in the top 200. More bizarre: Illinois is a better rebounding team, as seen in East Lansing, where the Illini tied habitual carom-grabbers Michigan State with 48 boards apiece.
Illinois’ low-post scoring is a strength, diminished only when Kofi Cockburn is challenged by freakishly tall, gangly shot blockers.
If the inside game isn’t working, there’s always the option of kicking out for a three-pointer.
In previewing this game, Underwood said his staff is trying to teach Kofi to use his body as the weapon it could be. As we’ve learned in the first two months of the season, Kofi Cockburn is considerably less vicious, personally, than you might assume for a beast whose Twitter handle includes the word “Alpha.” Having concussed Lewis Garrison, Kofi has been even more tentative inside. He doesn’t want to hurt people.
We’ll learn tonight whether that coaching took hold. As far as kick-outs are concerned, Underwood dismissed the idea that Alan Griffin should take over the starting wing spot. His rationale, it seems, is to make his second team as challenging as his starters.
With Da’Monte Williams, an 18% threat from the arc, Purdue can focus its attention on clogging the middle, and swarming Cockburn.
Optimists can look forward to twin developments tonight: Kofi returns to banging, and Da’Monte goes three-for-three from three. Given those two outcomes, it’s hard to see how Illinois could lose.