Zach Edey may be the best player in this Illinois vs Purdue matchup but a case can be made that Coleman Hawkins is the most important individual factor.
A top-10 matchup between Illinois and Purdue has a little damper on it with the absence of 20 ppg scoring guard, Terrence Shannon Jr. However, after a 30-point beatdown over Northwestern earlier this week, the Illini (11-2, 2-0 Big Ten) may be good enough to compete with the No. 1 team on the road.
The Wildcats blowout was a sign that this Illinois roster is more than Shannon. As Ty Rogers said during media availability, “we’ve been as close as we’ve even been… most since I’ve been here at Illinois”. Marcus Domask, who has a pair of 30+ point games, looks capable of being the new go-to scorer and the defense and athleticism are going to be something that Purdue (13-1, 2-1 Big Ten).
Yet the biggest key will be how the Illini handles National Player of the Year big man, Zach Edey (23.1 ppg and 10.3 rpg). He’s fouled out more frontcourt than anyone and Illinois’ starting center Coleman Hawkins still isn’t 100%, per himself.
But Hawkins’ ability to spread the floor and make three-pointers (35% on 17/48 shooting) could bring Edey away from the basket enough to allow guys like Domask, Rodgers, and Justin Harmon to get to the basket. When Gonzaga was leading Purdue in the first 25 minutes of their game in the Maui Invitational, Graham Ike made several three-pointers, the best part of the Bulldogs' offense.
On the season, Hawkins is averaging 10.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, and 2.5 apg, even while not reportedly 100%. His season-high performance was 18 pts against Fairleigh Dickinson, including 5/8 from deep. Hawkins certainly is willing to take those shots, with five straight games of 5+ 3PT attemps.
That being said, it's going to be a risk having Hawkins defend Edey for a period of time. If he gets into foul trouble, Illinois will need Dain Dainja and Amani Hansberry to get extended minutes, which will affect their offense. At the end of the day, you're just going to have to hope Hawkins can last long enough out there to have a winning impact.
If he has a big game, things very well could get interesting on Friday night… even without Shannon available. (Friday, 8:30 pm ET, FS1)