1/12/20 Michigan State, Aaron Wheeler, Eric Hunter Jr.

Sophomore forward Aaron Wheeler looks to pass the ball to sophomore guard Eric Hunter Jr. Wheeler opened the game with three free throws, his only points of the game.

Purdue will host the surging Fighting Illini as the Boilermakers look to rebound after Saturday’s loss to Maryland.

The Illini will go into Mackey Arena with both a 13-5 overall record and the number 21 next to their name. Last week, the Illini were ranked No. 24 in the country and beat both Rutgers and Northwestern. They now find themselves shooting up the rankings and are sitting at the No. 2 spot in the Big Ten.

Going into this season, hopes were high for the program and Illinois was expected to be an NCAA tournament team. They began the season winning six of its first seven games, but its one loss came to the only Power Five school they played. The team lost a close Big Ten opener game to Maryland, but it bounced back to pick up its first signature win against then No. 5 Michigan.

After that, things began to spiral out of control as the team lost to Miami, Missouri and Michigan State, but Illinois quickly got it together. This started with the team’s dominating home performance against Purdue, but has been followed up with three more wins since then.

The Illini are currently tied for second place in the Big Ten standings, and they are on the hunt to win the conference regular season title.

Purdue head coach Matt Painter knows it will not be an easy game to win.

“We are going to have to do a better job executing on the offensive end,” he said.

The Illinois team is led by a two-man tandem of sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu and freshman center Kofi Cockburn. Both were highly recruited out of high school and are leading their team to on-court success.

Dosunmu averages 15.4 points, and 3.1 assists a night while Cockburn puts up another 14.6 points and grabs 9.4 rebounds a game, which is good for fifth best in the Big Ten Conference.

Purdue assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry knows what Cockburn brings to the table.

“Cockburn’s such a huge person, he is like a mountain in there,” Shrewsberry said.

The Boilers, on the other hand, have their own mountain in sophomore forward Trevion Williams, but they still do not have a “go-to” player on the team.

Sophomore guard Sasha Stefanovic, junior center Matt Haarms, sophomore guard Eric Hunter Jr. and graduate transfer guard Jahaad Proctor all average close to 10 points a game, but no one has elevated their play enough to be considered at the top.

The last time these two teams played, Purdue put up its lowest point total in school history with a blowout 63-37 road loss.

Painter hopes this game’s outcome will be different.

“Well, hopefully, we will play better,” Painter said. “Obviously they played harder than we did.”

According to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, if the NCAA tournament started today, Purdue is a projected 10-seed and Illinois is projected 9-seed, so there is a lot on the line for this game.

Purdue not only has an opportunity to defend its home court but also avenge last month’s game and improve its seed line.

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