The initial reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.
I feel somewhat vindicated this morning because I never gave up on the Big Ten title. The best time to have a three game losing streak is early because you have a chance to erase it. When we were 2-3 in the Big Ten, there were still 13 games left to catch up. We even had two games left against the team we were chasing. To me, there was way too much basketball to be played at that point.
The same is true this morning, where we are currently tied in the loss column with Michigan State, Illinois, and Ohio State for first place. We control our own destiny with a game remaining against each (two coming at home), but a loss this Saturday to lowly Iowa would be as damaging to our title hopes as a loss last night would have been. It is time for us to stay focused and keep playing good basketball.
That said, I don't think there are enough positives you can take out of last night. This was our first road victory over a top 10 team since the landmark win at Wisconsin two years ago. It was our first win at the Breslin Center in 12 years. We topped 1,000 comments on the open thread. It has indeed been a banner week for Purdue and Hammer & Rails, and it is only Wednesday. As someone said last night, who do we attack next? (Kidding!)
Positives from the Michigan State game:
E`Twaun Moore - He is a bad, bad man. I think last night was the best game E'Twaun has played as a Boilermaker. Michigan State did not have an answer for him. A popular theme in the open threads is to call E'Twaun, "the Red Button", as in, "hit the Red Button for instant offense." That was no more evident than last night. With an 18 point lead down to three and the crowd rocking, E'Twaun assassinated any hope of victory with a three play sequence:
- Step back dagger of a 3-pointer
- Dish inside to Robbie Hummel for a reverse layup
- Teardrop runner in the lane
With that, the 3-point lead with four minutes left was back to 10 and the game was essentially over. It also exhibited how important E'Twaun was even when he wasn't scoring. He finished the night with six assists, which means he was involved in 37 points instead of the 25 he scored directly. Steve Lavin consistently mentioned that E'Twaun has to be considered for Big Ten Player of the Year. While I think Evan Turner is the better overall player, E'Twaun has earned his way into the discussion.
The first half - At halftime we discussed if the first half was our best half of the season. I think it is up there with the first half against Ohio State and the second half against West Virginia. Last night was better, however, because everyone got involved. First it was E'Twaun, then we kept pounding the ball in to JJ. Robbie hit some big shots. Keaton Grant was aggressive in getting to the basket. Chris Kramer had a great backdoor layup. John Hart had a big three of the bench. Kelsey Barlow was disruptive. This was a total team effort.
If we are going to have a deep run in March we have to have more contributions like that. part of the reason we struggled in the second half came from going away from the first half philosophy. Robbie was on the bench in foul trouble, we stopped going inside to JJ, and they keyed on E'Twaun defensively. We need guys like Grant, Hart, and Barlow to be threats to score so we can open things up for our Big Three. I also still think Kramer can be more of an offensive threat.
Offensive efficiency - We shot better than 50% and we had 16 assists on 25 made baskets. All of this came while playing in one of the toughest places in the country to play. It was the first time in almost five years that Michigan State gave up more than 75 points at the Breslin Center. We made it a point to rebound, as our effort was unmatched there. This, of course, makes the Northwestern loss more frustrating, but it was refreshing to see us be aggressive at all times near the basket. In that regard, we made it a point to get to the basket. It wasn't just JJ, either. Kramer, Grant, and Hummel consistently drove to the basket both with and without the basketball. That meant we didn't rely on the perimeter three as much and our percentage from outside was a solid 43%.
Keaton Grant - Keaton had six points last night, all born out of a new attitude for him. He is attacking the basket more and seeking contact. Since his 3-point shot is not falling, that is a good thing. I still feel he is going to have a breakout game like Hart at Illinois.he doesn't have to score as much as he needs to be a threat to score so defenses have to worry about him.
Robbie Hummel - Ho hum. Another quiet 15-5-5 game from Robbie. This came with him on the bench for most of the second half. He had two of the biggest baskets of the night with his deep three before halftime and his reverse layup during the closing run. That is what great players do. They affect games without even playing much.
JaJuan Johnson - JJ came to play last night. It is a credit to our coaching staff for recognizing the mismatch we had with JJ and consistently exploiting it. JJ also played a very aggressive ballgame. Michigan State didn't know what to do with him because his jumper was working and his fall away was even more deadly when they fronted him. I also have to say something about JJ's aggression on the boards. All seven rebounds were huge.
Free Throws - We were 20 of 22 in a tough road venue. That is why I don't understand why we went away from trying to get to the line when Michigan State made its comeback. The Spartans were doing what we needed to do and it was working. Sure, it would likely have extended the game past midnight, but it would have meant for more scoring opportunities.
Kalin Lucas - I know he plays for the other team, but I have to respect the man for hobbling around on one leg and still controlling the game. He willed himself to the free throw line for 11 attempts and was knocked to the ground a lot. This kid is a warrior and has my utmost respect.
Negatives from the Michigan State game:
Closing games - I honestly don't see why it is so hard for us to close teams out. Last night we stopped doing everything that was working while we built the 18 point lead. This has become a disturbing trend where we blow big leads late in games. It started with Ohio State, but we have let Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and now Michigan State back in games when we shouldn't have. Why do I have the feeling this will bite us at the absolute worst time.
Draymond Green - This isn't a negative for us so much as it was for MSU. He was a dismal 1 of 13 from the field. That killed the Spartans. Most of those misses were close to the basket too. If he can fish the play we're in trouble last night.
That Random Player - It started in Madison with Jordan Taylor and has continued in almost every game since. One player on the opposing team performs well above his season average. Last night it was Chris Allen. He hadn't been over 20 points since beating Valparaiso back in November. He only had four games in double figures in Big Ten play with two 0-fers. Last night: 21 points and four 3-pointers. This has to stop.
Offensive rebounding - This is a bit anomalous because rebounding overall was good and we didn't miss many shots, but MSU stayed alive because of a 12-3 edge on the offensive glass.
It is a seven game race now. We have three games that we have no excuse losing (Iowa, Indiana, at Penn State), one we should win (at Minnesota, which won't be easy), and three left against the other teams competing for he conference title. If we hold serve at home and take two of three on the road, I think we have at least a share of the title. We should win Saturday at home against Iowa with ease, but we can't look past them. That makes next Wednesday's game in Columbus one of the biggest remaining games of the entire conference season.
Nationally, I think we're solidly in line for a #2 seed as long as we finish at least 6-1. There is a decent chance at a #1 seed, but we would need Villanova, Syracuse, Kentucky, and Kansas to lose multiple games. Of those four teams, I think I'd rather be in a bracket with Villanova because they remind me a lot of Michigan State, only better. They have solid guards, but no interior presence to go against JJ.
That is a little far down the road though. Right now, we just have to keep taking care of business in front of us. That means Iowa on Saturday. We made a nice national statement by dominating a top ten (albeit shorthanded) team last night. That will go a long way towards our overall profile. At least with 20 wins, and many of them "quality wins" we can consider ourselves a lock for the NCAA's even if we unexpectedly lose the next eight games.