Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Purdue Boilermakers Pick & Prediction MARCH 5th 2024

On Saturday night, Purdue partied.

After the No. 2 Boilermakers held off Michigan State to clinch a share of their league-best 26th Big Ten crown, enough confetti fell from the Mackey Arena rafters for Zach Edey and his mates to make confetti angels on the court.

“It’s a great accomplishment to win back-to-back Big Ten championships,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “It’s a very difficult task. We’re happy for our entire team, but really happy for our seniors. Those guys have hung in there, been very successful and they’ve done things the right way.”

There’s just one catch: The Big Ten race isn’t technically over. Heading into the final week of regular-season play, No. 13 Illinois (22-7, 13-5) has a chance to share the title — but that chance requires a win over Purdue (26-3, 15-3) on Tuesday night in Champaign, Ill.

When the Illini and Boilermakers met exactly two months earlier in West Lafayette, Purdue never trailed in an 83-78 victory — but that was during the six-game stretch when Illinois leading scorer Terrence Shannon Jr. (22.0 points per game) was suspended.

Shannon enters this game on the heels of a fabulous seven-game stretch of 23, 29, 12, 35, 27, 31 and 28 points — or 26.4 points per game.

“I think we’re finding a place, after Terrence’s time away, I think we’re finding the right comfort (level overall),” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “I think we’re realizing how to use Dain (Dainja), I think we’re very comfortable in the cross-match that people throw at us now.”

That “cross-match” was popularized in the first Purdue-Illinois matchup — when Edey was assigned to defend Illinois’ 6-foot-6 Ty Rodgers, a guard who does not shoot outside the paint. This matchup allowed Edey to help on other players and bottle up Illinois’ offense, particularly early.

“You know, March is a time to hopefully get it all figured out — and continue playing for a while,” Underwood said with a smile.

Purdue, meanwhile, has always had things figured out as Edey and point guard Braden Smith continue to be the heart of everything.

Edey remains a virtual shoo-in to become the first repeat National Player of the Year since Ralph Sampson 40 years ago. His scoring average has jumped from 22.3 to 24.0 as he’s shooting slightly better from the field (from .607 to .626) and averaging almost four more free-throw attempts per game (a national-best 11.0 per game).

Smith could earn a spot alongside Edey on the All-Big Ten first team thanks to his 13.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game — the last stat ranking sixth in the nation. But Painter believes there’s a best version of Smith that can lead the Boilermakers as far as they desperately want to go.

“Braden’s been fabulous,” Painter said. “We just need him to be aggressive. The other night (against Michigan), he was 3-for-14 and I didn’t think he took a bad shot. He was 3-for-14 earlier in the year against Indiana and we had a quality win at their place and I didn’t think he took a bad shot.

“Just getting him to be on the hunt and to look for his shot. Look for your shot when they double Zach. Look for your shot in transition. Just stay aggressive. He’s really good. I know we’re biased in who we coach, but I wouldn’t trade him for any point guard in the country.”

–Field Level Media

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