Heading into a game at No. 4 Purdue on Saturday, here are some words of advice for Illinois basketball from Jerry Palm, the RPI guru: "Finish strong."

Heading into a game at No. 4 Purdue on Saturday, here are some words of advice for Illinois basketball from Jerry Palm, the RPI guru: "Finish strong." 

With a mediocre non-conference season and padding its Big Ten Conference win total against the league's bottom feeders, Illinois still has work to be done before returning to the NCAA Tournament.

"They've been hit and miss all year,'' Palm said. "That's got to stop. They've got to get hits and win on the road. The win at Wisconsin was great. They're still trying to make up for a really indifferent non-conference performance.''

According to Palm, 11 wins in the Big Ten season "is not a comfortable place'' for Illinois. Coach Bruce Weber apparently agreed.

"I don't know if there's an exact number,'' Weber said. "Eleven gives us a chance. Twelve, we have to feel pretty good. Then a lot depends on what happens in the (conference) tournaments and what everyone else does.

"We just have to focus on one game at a time. That's all we can do now. More than anything, we can improve and play at a high level. That's important.''

Following the loss to Ohio State, Palm and the NCAA's RPI had the Illini listed at No. 70. Bracketology projections vary. Palm put the Illini in the tournament as a No. 12 seed. ESPN, Fox Sports and Sports Illustrated put the Illini as a No. 8.

"We're not on the bubble,'' said Illini forward Mike Davis. "We're a little bit above the bubble. We need a couple more wins to secure our spot.''

With five games left in the Big Ten regular season, Illinois needs two wins to stay alive and three victories to feel a little more comfortable. If they fall short, a win or two in the Big Ten Tournament would also help push them over the hump. Barring a major slide, Illinois will finish in the top five in the league standings.

"All five games are important,'' Palm said. "Minnesota is a must win. If you're a tournament team, you beat them at home. If you're a tournament team, you go to Michigan and win that game.''

While road games against Purdue and Ohio State seem like tall hurdles and the home date with Wisconsin is a tricky assignment, "you might need to win one of those, too,'' he said. "If you lose to Michigan or Minnesota, you might have to win two of them.

"If you're entering the conference tournament with 11 wins, then you play in the 4-5 game against somebody like Wisconsin or Ohio State, that's not a fun place to be.''

Illinois is 9-9 against teams in the top 200 in the RPI. It's critical to not fall below .500, Palm said.

"You can count on one hand, maybe one finger, the number of teams that got a bid that's not .500 against the top 200 in the RPI,'' Palm said.

Weber doesn't talk much about the NCAAs with these Illini. He doesn't feel this team is mature enough to handle anything but what's immediately in front of them, so he hasn’t set any goals down the stretch.
"Coach's tendency is to be nervous all the time,'' Davis said. "He doesn't look too far ahead. We can't start looking and ahead and thinking about the big picture and not the task at hand. That's Purdue Saturday.''

Meanwhile, Purdue takes aim at its first Big Ten title since 1996 and a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. A 60-57 victory Wednesday at No. 9 Ohio State slid Purdue into the driver's seat in the Big Ten race. Carrying an eight-game winning streak, the Boilermakers are tied in the loss column with the Spartans and host Michigan State on Feb. 28.

"We have a lot of basketball to play,'' Boilermakers coach Matt Painter said. "You can't take anything for granted. We're more concerned with Illinois. We've put ourselves in a better position. The job is not complete.''

The same goes for Illinois.

NOTES: Illinois assistant coach Jerrance Howard watched eighth-grade guard Larry Austin Jr. lead Springfield Grant to the IESA Class 4A title with a 55-36 win over Normal Kingsley on Thursday. Austin scored 21 points. . . Illinois' 89-86 win over Syracuse in the 1989 regional final will be shown Monday on The Big Ten Network at 7 p.m.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.

Illinois (17-9, 9-4) vs. No. 4 Purdue (22-3, 10-3)
3 p.m., Mackey Arena (14,123), West Lafayette, Ind. (ESPN, Illini Sports Network)
 
ILLINOIS (17-9, 9-4)   ppg     rpg
F Mike Davis Jr. 6-19 10.2 8.4
F Bill Cole Jr. 6-9 4.0 3.2
C Mike Tisdale Jr. 7-1 11.8 6.2
G Demetri McCamey Jr. 6-3 15.6 3.0
G D.J. Richardson Fr. 6-3 10.8 2.6
 
PURDUE (22-3, 10-3)     ppg   rpg
F Robbie Hummel Jr. 6-8 15.6 7.0
C JaJuan Johnson Jr. 6-10 15.2 7.0
G Chris Kramer Sr. 6-3 5.8 3.2
G E'Twaun Moore Jr. 6-4 17.2 3.5
G Kelsey Barlow Fr. 6-5 3.8 2.3
 
Noteworthy: Purdue leads the series 90-84 after winning the last two games. Purdue rallied from an eight-point deficit late in the first half for an 84-78 victory over Illinois on Jan. 19 in Assembly Hall. The Boilermakers scored 56 points in the second half, when the Illini had only seven stops on defense. The Purdue victory ended a three-game losing streak and started the Boilermakers on their eight-game winning streak. . . Johnson had 24 points and 12 rebounds in the first meeting. McCamey had 28 points and nine assists to lead the Illini. . . Illinois plays a top 15 team for the fourth straight game for the first time since 1992 and the third time in school history. . . The 72-53 loss Sunday to Ohio State snapped a season-best five-game winning streak for the Illini.

Key for Illini: Slow down Johnson. He's averaging 19.6 points during Purdue's winning streak.

Key for Boilermakers: Don't ease off the accelerator after beating Ohio State.

Key quote: "We should be fine with the RPI. If we win, it will help because we're playing top teams. A loss shouldn't hurt us drastically.'' – Illinois coach Bruce Weber.

Prediction: Purdue 66, Illinois 58