Tipoff: Purdue at Illinois, 9 p.m., tonight
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Family told Purdue's Sterling Carter what he needed to hear. Did he listen? You bet he did. Did it pay off? Absolutely. Will it turn around his season, and that of the Boilers?
Anything is possible.
“My family said it didn't look like I wanted to be out there,” Carter said. “I didn't have that mentality I normally have. I looked in the mirror and decided to have more energy.”
The mirror has a way of doing that if you can see truth in the reflection and not deception. In the last two games, Carter has come off the bench playing above his norm if not his 6-foot height. In those games he's averaged 9.0 points and 5.5 rebounds, way above his season averages of 4.5 and 1.2. He added three steals, three assists and zero turnovers.
You can win with that, and Sunday against Nebraska, the Boilers did.
“It's about having more energy and a better focus,” Carter said. “Just wanting to be out there, be out there at crunch time.
“Playing with these guys is a great opportunity. I realized that and got back to my old ways.”
Coach Matt Painter noticed.
“If we don't play him,” Painter said, “we probably lose.”
Carter arrived as a fifth-year senior transfer from Seattle, signed to provide much needed outside shooting punch. He had averaged 36.8 percent from three-point range in 2 1/2 years at Seattle, making 170 three-pointers.
But for the first month at Purdue, he was a three-point shooting bust, going 6-for-31 beyond the arc. Since then he's 12-for-26. He's making the plays you'd expect from a veteran. He's averaged 19 minutes the last two games, and likely will play more tonight when the Boilers travel to Illinois.
The problem: Where do the backcourt minutes come from given you already have Terone Johnson and Ronnie Johnson as basically starter locks, with Raphael Davis, Bryson Scott and Kendall Stephens right behind them?
“Sterling isn't a point guard,” Painter said, “so if you play him with Terone, you're pretty small (in the lineup). But if he gets seven rebounds (as he did against Nebraska), he knocks that part out of it. He played big. That's what we need. We need people sticking their nose in it and trying to get those loose balls and long rebounds. Doing the little things to help us win. He helped us win.”
Perhaps Painter will reward him tonight with his first Purdue start.
“He's proven the last couple games that we're better with him in there than not,” Painter said. “That's what you want to do as a player, get a string of consistency together. Force your coach's hand. He did some good things and didn't turn it over. Things like that win games.”
That's a message Carter has relayed to his teammates. Purdue is 11-5 overall, 1-2 in the Big Ten. Its postseason prospects depend on beating teams such as Illinois.
“Our guys are understanding that time is running out,” Carter said. “If we want to be in the NCAA Tournament, we have to pick it up now and not later.”
Illinois has lost two straight games to fall out of the top 20. Losing at No. 3 Wisconsin was expected. Losing at struggling Northwestern? Not so much.
Still, the Illini (13-4, 2-2) have firepower with Rayvonte Rice (18.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 31 assists, 23 steals), Tracy Abrams (12.6 points, 4.1 rebounds) and Joseph Bertrand (11.0 points, 5.8 rebounds).
Illinois' struggles haven't come at home. They are 9-0 at State Farm Center, with Big Ten wins over Penn State and Indiana.
“You evaluate a team on where you play them,” Painter said. “They haven't had any down performances at home. We focus on how they played at home against Penn State and Indiana.
“What really concerns me is that they struggled shooting the ball the last two games on the road, but they have guys who can shoot. You don't want to be the team that lets them shoot 70 percent. They have some guys who are really dangerous. They have a very good team.”