Purdue's Zach Edey and Trevion Williams are the best center combination in the country.
They combine for an average of 28.7 points and 16.1 rebounds while shooting better than 66% from the field. Often, they have simply overpowered smaller teams, controlling the glass – the Boilers rank third in the country in average rebounding margin at plus 12.7 – and scoring at will from the post.
This afternoon, they will try to pick on someone their own size.
Illinois center Kofi Cockburn, one of the leading contenders for Big Ten Player of the Year, enters today's matchup against the seventh-ranked Boilermakers at the State Farm Center in Champaign averaging 21.9 points and 12.3 rebounds. He has pushed the Fighting Illini to second in the country in rebound margin at plus 13.3.
This is one opponent the Boiler bigs won't be able to push around.
Last season in Illinois' 66-58 win over Purdue, the 7-foot, 285-pound Cockburn scored 14 points on 7-for-9 shooting.
“We have to hit him early (in possessions),” Williams said. “We looked at last year's game and we struggled with, ... letting him get deep (post position). This year we want to him early, get into his legs. Lowest man always wins.”
Slowing Cockburn – even Purdue coach Matt Painter admits it's almost impossible to stop him entirely – is the key to slowing down No. 25 Illinois (13-3, 6-0 Big Ten), which enters this afternoon's clash at the top of the conference standings. Purdue (14-2, 3-2) was the preseason league favorite, but a loss today would hamper its hopes of a record 25th conference title.
The Boilers have lost three straight to Illini over the last two seasons.
“They're one of the better teams in the Big Ten right now, and we want to prove a point and make a statement,” Williams said. “Obviously the last few times we couldn't get them, but we want to get it done this year.”
After some lackluster play in late December and early January, including losses to Rutgers and Wisconsin and a closer-than-it-needed-to-be win over Penn State, the Boilermakers were firing on all cylinders against a hapless Nebraska team on the way to a 92-65 triumph Friday.
They'll need another such performance to beat a much better opponent.
“We've just gotta keep the same energy,” guard Jaden Ivey said. “Just keep playing with that swagger we've been playing with and the rest will take care of itself. We've got a lot of guys on this team fired up from all the L's that we took.
“We just gotta keep playing fired up.”
A fired-up Purdue front line could be the most important factor in limiting Cockburn's effectiveness. Unlike Illinois, which gives its star center huge minutes, the Boilermakers are able to run two high-quality big men into the game in shifts. Their plan is to give maximum effort and hope Cockburn has little energy left for the game's most important moments.
“We're focused on making him play, making him work for everything he's getting,” Edey said. “We want to make him earn it, make him do as many things as possible so he gets tired. It's tough for a guy that big to play 30 minutes a game. We can't let him coast any possession.”
When: Noon today
Where: State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.
Records: No. 7 Purdue (14-2, 3-2 Big Ten), No. 25 Illinois (13-3, 6-0)
TV: Fox Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM