In Part II of my three-part series, I examine Purdue, who could potentially lock up a number 1 seed if they continue to dominate the Big Ten. They are coming off of a huge road win in East Lansing, where they held off fellow Big Ten stalwart Michigan State.
There are three blemishes on the Purdue Boilermakers’ schedule. From January 6 to January 16, they lost at Wisconsin, against Ohio State, and at Northwestern. All three losses were by a combined 19 points, and in those games Purdue was up against some of the hottest shooters in the conference. Whether it was Evan Turner returning from a back injury to essentially win it for the Buckeyes, or Michael Thompson keying a huge run in Evanston, the Boilermakers had a terrible stretch of games for 10 days in the middle of the season.
Yet, now they are 20-3 overall and a mere half game out of first place in the conference after taking down Michigan State on the road this week. After pulling away in the first half to take a 14-point halftime lead, the Spartans came back to make it interesting, pulling within three with under four minutes to play in the game. But the Boilermakers held on with their staggering defense and offensive cohesion, as they slowed down the game and pulled away by scoring the game’s next nine points.
Being able to weather the storm and keep your composure is one of the keys to success in the NCAA Tournament, because just about every team you play will have some kind of run in them. With Purdue, they have been able to hold down opponents as they have made their runs. Recently, Purdue found themselves down three points at Indiana before cracking down and then taking the lead for good in the final four minutes. It may have been a narrow victory over a weak conference foe, but at the same time it proved that the Boilermakers can finish games – something a lot of top teams have not been able to do (see: West Virginia at Pittsburgh Friday night).
A team that is built like Purdue makes me want to give them the edge over a team like Kentucky, which relies on young, quick players that love to get out and run the floor. Purdue, on the other hand, is a bigger team that is fairly balanced on offense, with pure scorers like E’Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel, and defensive specialists such as Chris Kramer and JaJuan Johnson. Even though there are only three players on the team averaging more than six points per game, those players on the bench are capable of coming into the game at any time and providing a spark, and those that do not score make up for it at the defensive end.
Purdue and Michigan State are clearly the class of the Big Ten this year, but after the Boilermakers’ big victory Tuesday they gained a slight edge over the Spartans. They will also probably move into the top 5 nationally, where I expect them to stay for at least the remainder of the regular season. Though anything can happen in the Big Ten Tournament, I think it is safe to say that Purdue is able to handle all challenges, and I expect them to make one of the longest tourney runs in school history.