All this chaos in the Big Ten has been fun to watch and it has erased our mistakes, but now is when the real fun begins. While a Big ten title is unlikely for our Boilermakers, we're one of five teams tied for first place in the loss column with only two defeats. The Penn State loss looks a little better now that State College has inexplicably become a fortress that only Tom Crean can figure out (which should tell you how crazy this Big Ten is).
The fact everyone has at least two losses means we still control our own destiny for the title despite two stumbles that really shouldn't have happened. Still, everyone else has their own WTF loss so far (Illinois and Purdue at PSU, MSU at NW, OSU at Indiana, Michigan at Iowa), so we're all pretty even. Our next five games are a critical stretch that will decide if we're in this for the long haul or if we'll simply fight for an NCAA tournament berth.
I like that we begin this stretch at Michigan State because we get one of the toughest games out of the way early. If we win it, we get a major boost of confidence that we can go 4-1 or 5-0. We've won two in a row up there in pretty convincing fashion, but that means very little since we did it with JJ and E'Twaun. The Spartans have looked vulnerable of late with two straight losses after winning 15 in a row, so the potential for a shocker is there.
2010-11 Record: 19-15, 9-9 Big Ten
2011-12 Record: 15-4, 4-2 Big Ten
Postseason Result: Lost 78-76 to UCLA in NCAA First Round
Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 65-46
Last Purdue win: 2/27/2011 at Michigan State 67-47
Last Michigan State win: 3/11/11 in Big Ten Tournament 74-56
Time & TV Noon, ESPN
Last year's Michigan State series was a little odd. In a span of less than two weeks we went from a dominant win on their home floor to a punchless loss in the Big Ten Tournament as everything began to fall apart. Everyone expected a lot more from MSU last season with them coming off of two straight Final Fours and having good senior leadership, but something was off all year.
This year's Michigan State team has looked really good at times, but their recent two-game losing streak has shown some vulnerabilities. They are spotless at home so far, but they survived overtime at Wisconsin, lost a close one at Michigan, and got picked apart in giving up 81 points to Northwestern.
On our end we have to play team-oriented basketball that has been the hallmark of our excellent stretches of play. Terone Johnson, Kelsey Barlow, and Lewis Jackson must attack the basket. If Ryne Smith gets open looks he has to knock them down. LewJack is especially a key, as he was dominant in the two wins over them last year.
One thing that stood out in the win over Iowa was our aggressiveness on the glass, especially by Travis Carroll. Michigan State has long dominated us on the glass because of their size, but we've still managed to win three of the last five games against them including the last two in East Lansing. If we can keep it fairly even on the boards it should go a long way toward winning.
That's easier said than done when Draymond Green is an automatic 15 and 10 every night. I'm not sure if Robbie Hummel or Carroll will draw that assignment defensively, but we cannot make things easy on him. This could be a game where we go bigger at times with Sandi Marcius or Jacob Lawson in with Hummel and Carroll. Adreian Payne id effective in the paint too at 6.7 ppg and 4.7 rpg. Branden Dawson (a.k.a., the one that got away) is averaging nearly eight points per game too. They can field a big lineup with Derrick Nix, Payne, and Green down low.
Keith Appling is the only other player in double figures with Green at 12.7 ppg. He and Green also dish out nearly four assists per game. This team likes to share the basketball. Brandon Wood, a fellow Kokomo Wildkat whom we have seen before with Valparaiso., is having a good one-year-only NBA audition at 9.7 points per game. He is the type of player that can heat it up and go for 30 any night, but I have been impressed with his growth. At Kokomo, he was a score first, second, and third player. Over the course of his college career he has grown into a solid all-around player.
Derrick Nix, Travis Trice, and Austin Thornton round out the main rotation. In reality, this is a team that is very similar to us in a lot of respects. Green is their Robbie Hummel-type power forward that can also shoot the three. Appling is a bigger LewJack with more of a scoring edge. Wood is kind of close to D.J. Byrd in terms of being a versatile player that fits very well in the offense. Dawson is a bit like Barlow in that he can get to the rim and also rebound and handle the ball. Trice is like Ryno in that 51 of his 87 FG attempts are threes. Nix is a combination of Carroll, Marcius, and Lawson if we could put the best attributes of those three players together in one guy.
Those similarities give me some confidence. Green is going to do his thing, so I think the key is defending Appling and Wood so they don't get going from long range. We're going to have to shoot the ball well, rebound, and keep attacking. Michigan State is 10th nationally in rebounding at 40 per game, so keeping them off the glass has to be a priority. They're also 16th nationally in assists per game at 16.7, so we have to switch well on defense and avoid living shooters open.
I'm not going to lie: this is going to be a difficult game to win, but it is not impossible. Northwestern got to the line 29 times and hit 21 of them, so attacking can pay off. It only pays off if we keep hitting our free throws, however. That area took a surprising step forward against Iowa, so maybe we're coming out of that funk.
The bottom line is that we still have a chance in this Big Ten race. We are certainly capable of winning this game, but we have to be the good Purdue that has been dominant for stretches of play against Illinois, Xavier, Minnesota, etc, and avoid being the bad Purdue that had inexplicable stretches of awful play that cost us in four of our five losses. It really is as simple as attacking the basket, being aggressive on the glass, and hitting our free throws. When we do that, we win. When our offense resorts to the "hot lava offense" of passing the ball around the perimeter without attacking, we lose. It is that simple.