No. 1 Purdue faces big tests in Big Ten with Maryland, No. 9 Illinois coming up

Tue, Jan 2, 2024
NCAAB News (AP)

No. 1 Purdue faces big tests in Big Ten with Maryland, No. 9 Illinois coming up

Purdue should be accustomed to playing highly ranked opponents by this point of the season.

The top-ranked Boilermakers rolled through Tennessee, Gonzaga and Marquette in consecutive days to win the Maui Invitational when all three of them were among the top 11 teams in the country. A few weeks later, they took down Arizona for their first win over a team ranked No. 1 since beating the Wildcats on Nov. 25, 2000.

Now, they will face ninth-ranked Illinois on Friday night in one of the early showdowns in Big Ten play.

Purdue (12-1), which also faces Maryland on Tuesday night, has already dropped a conference game to Northwestern, and another loss this week would put coach Matt Painter's crew in catch-up mode before they even hit mid-January.

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"We still haven't won a road game and we're going into a beehive where they didn't lose in the Big Ten last season," Painter said of the Terps (9-4), who have won six straight games. "I feel like we've made strides. We have experience. We've some guys who went through some things. We have different guys off the bench that play off the bench, depending how the night unfolds."

Zach Edey, the reigning national player of the year, has done nothing to dissuade voters from crowning him again, averaging 23.2 points and 10.3 rebounds. But along with their usual contributions from Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith, the Boilermakers have been getting more from Mason Gillis and Trey Kaufman-Renn, extending their lineup and making them more dangerous.

The Illini (10-2) routed Fairleigh Dickinson last week in their first game without leading scorer Terrence Shannon Jr., who has been suspended after he was charged with rape for an alleged incident that occurred last fall in Lawrence, Kansas.

Much will be learned about how the Illini will fare without him this week. They face Northwestern (10-2) on Tuesday night before taking on the Boilermakers in a top-10 matchup certain to draw plenty of attention.

"We have really, really good players and quality depth," Illini coach Brad Underwood said, "and it might not have shown with some of the young guys in some of these early games. We played a very demanding and challenging schedule. I think it's a blessing that I have an old team, and a team that is very dedicated and committed to each other and the process."

ZAGS HANGING ON

Gonzaga dropped from No. 11 to 24th in the Top 25 this week, barely staying in the poll for the 142nd consecutive week following its loss to San Diego State. Now, the Bulldogs will try to turn things around - they've lost three of their past five - as they begin West Coast Conference play against Pepperdine on Thursday night and San Diego on Saturday.

The Bulldogs (9-4), who have been ranked in every poll since Jan. 11, 2016, are winless in four games against Quad 1 foes, and they may not have many more opportunities in what is shaping up to be a down year for their conference.

STATEMENT WEEK FOR CLEMSON

No. 16 Clemson (11-1) has struggled to get much recognition after a comparatively easy nonconference schedule that included a loss to Memphis. But that could change this week when ACC play resumes with a tough trip to Miami on Wednesday night, then a visit from eighth-ranked North Carolina on Saturday.

"I was excited and very optimistic about our group before the season. I knew we had guys that I thought were motivated and hungry and had good talent," Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, "but you're always trying to put the pieces together, and that's coming together. Guys are finding their niche and their roles and accepting of those things."

SUPER SATURDAY

There are plenty of big-time matchups besides North Carolina-Clemson on Saturday as conference plays ramps up.

In the SEC, No. 22 Ole Miss (13-0) puts its perfect record on the line when it heads to fifth-ranked Tennessee (9-3), while No. 6 Kentucky (10-2) faces a difficult trip to Florida (10-3), and Auburn (10-2) takes its new No. 25 ranking to Arkansas (9-4).

In the Big 12, TCU (10-2) could make a statement for a spot in the poll with a trip to No. 2 Kansas (12-1), while Iowa State (11-2) can do likewise when it visits No. 11 Oklahoma (12-1). Two conference newcomers also meet in an intriguing game when Cincinnati (11-2) tries to build upon a surprisingly strong nonconference record against No. 12 BYU (12-1).

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