This Big Ten basketball season is all about where you fall on the ladder. We've seen that anyone can beat anyone else on any given night. We've already dropped three games at home, where we were previously impregnable. Still, the top seven teams in the league will likely be safe for NCAA consideration because of that competitiveness. That means that you need to do everything possible to assure you have some leverage over those teams battling to stay in the top seven.
After tonight, Purdue now has full leverage over two of those teams that we may be on the Bubble with. We have beaten Minnesota in our only meeting with the Golden Gophers, and it gets an extra boost because it came on their floor. We also now have a sweep of Northwestern. With Nebraska, Penn State, and Iowa definitely out of the at large equation that means we should be able to get into that top seven, especially if we also get a sweep and leverage over Illinois on Wednesday.
This was a scary game. Northwestern hadn't won four straight conference games in almost 50 years and they were playing some pretty good basketball. They would likely be in the NCAA Tournament right now if they had not lost to Purdue and Illinois at home. John Shurna was throwing everything in the basket. We didn't have a great game defensively, but we attacked the basket and made Northwestern pay for mistakes. No matter what happens now we have a definite card to play over two teams in the conference when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. Now we need to make it count.
Positives from the second Northwestern game:
D.J. Byrd - if we make the NCAA Tournament it is because of D.J. Byrd. This team is in need of a hot hand right now, and Byrd has been exactly that. He nearly led us to a huge road upset at Ohio State and tonight 18 second half points, including several huge baskets in the last eight minutes won this game. His first big basket was a three with 7:19 left that put us in front for good at 57-55. Terone Johnson and Ryne Smith followed with threes of their own and the lead was comfortable the rest of the way.
D.J. also added a huge putback and his full-court pass to Ryno for an easy layup was another key basket. This is the Byrd we need not just this year, but next year when he has to provide senior level leadership and scoring. What made the Baby Boilers so successful? Terrance Crump and upperclassmen like Marcus Green provided guidance and good backup scoring. Byrd needs to be a double figures scorer the rest of his career at Purdue.
Kelsey Barlow - My goodness, how much has he grown, especially in the last two games? He had 10 points, eight rebounds, solid defense, and played exactly like we need him to play in every game. By frustrating Drew Crawford he drew the first technical (at the expense of his own tech), and the rest of the night he was active on the glass. I have long said he has the potential to be our most active rebounder. With us going small tonight that paid off. He has to attack he basket when he has the ball and when every shot goes up. That's where his critical scoring comes from.
Robbie Hummel - Is Rob coming out of it at the right time? I sure hope so. In the first half he was shooting straight up, getting arc on his shot, and everything in his form looked much better. That led to 13 huge points. He would finish with a very quiet 27 (or at least as quite of 27 as he can have) and move past Brian Cardinal on the Purdue scoring list. He'll likely move into the top 15 against Illinois past Jaraan Cornell too.
More importantly, Rob got to the line and was 12 of 14. Remember the Illinois game two years ago right before the injury? His shot wasn't falling, so Rob got to the line. As one of our very few consistent free throw shooters we need to have Rob in attack mode so he can get to the line.
Free Throw Shooting - I never though 72.7% would be a good night for us, but it is over the Mendoza Line I have arbitrarily established at 70%. D.J. was a perfect five for five, but Anthony Johnson was 0 for 2 and Lewis Jackson was 3 for 6.
Terone Johnson - It seemed like all of TJ's baskets were big ones. His three came at a huge moment when we were finally able to take control. His two second half floaters also helped keep them at bay. As one of our inside-out guys, TJ has to keep attacking, Unlike Barlow, I trust him a little more to step out and take the open three when given. As long as he knocks it down with some regularity it adds a dimension to our offense.
Ryne Smith - Ryno had a very big 14 points and seems to be finding his three point shot. I am absolutely in favor of him coming off the bench. He's more dangerous that way for some reason.
LewJack - I think LewJack should be starting, but with eight assists and his continued ability to attack the rim he's getting it done.
Rebounding - Out of 343 Division I teams the Wildcats rate 325th in rebounding nationally. You're damn right we should have won the battle on the glass, and during our string of 12 straight misses in the first half our ability to get on the glass kept their lead at just one. Barlow, TJ, and LewJack each had three offensive boards. Travis Carroll barely played, while Jacob Lawson and Sandi Marcius didn't play at all. On that point...
Matt Painter - He's taken a lot of criticism of late, but he has been masterful in each of the last two games about getting guys in the right spot and exploiting weaknesses. Ohio State was vulnerable to that high screen, so we kept running it and even got some easy baskets for Lawson and Carroll off of it. Tonight he knew Northwestern was vulnerable to a smaller lineup, so we went small and attacked the rim. The man can indeed coach a little bit and doesn't need JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore to win in this conference.
Negatives from the second Northwestern game:
Perimeter defense - Once again, a team shot better than 40% from long range. This cannot continue if we're going to do anything in the final six games. One of the critical games going forward is at Indiana, and to have a chance there we need to defend the three even though they were just 3 of 10 from long range the first time around. Ohio State was not a good three point shooting team, but they shot the lights out from long range.
This was also the second straight game we gave up a 30 point scorer. That's fine as long as we're scoring 85 points per game, but we're going to get into some defensive struggles here in the last six. Those are the games where a John Shurna is going off can make a huge difference. Reggie Hearn looked like he was going to become a BOMAFUWFWLOFST winner for awhile there. I don't know what is wrong with our perimeter defense, but if we ever fix it things will get a lot easier.
Wednesday night at Illinois now becomes a huge game for both us and Illinois. The Fighting Illini are on the verge of breaking. At 16-9 and 5-7 in the Big Ten a Purdue win can all but assure we'll finish ahead of them and Northwestern with a critical 4-0 record against both. It also means we can assure ourselves of a likely safe 9-9 Big Ten record as long as we handle our business at home against Nebraska and Penn State. At that point, anything we get out of the home game against Michigan State and the trips to Michigan and Indiana are mere bonuses.
On Illinois' end, they are almost done. If they fall to 5-8 in the league they still have to go to Wisconsin and Ohio State, plus host Michigan. Suddenly, a below .500 mark and no NCAA trip seems very likely for them. They desperately need to defend their home court, but we've already beaten them by 15 and they lost their last home contest to the same Northwestern team we just beat. They have lost 6 of 7, their one victory was an ugly 42-41 home win over Michigan State, and it is very safe to call their season on the brink.
That means it is an opportunity to make our lives a whole hell of a lot easier. We can help secure our place in the NCAA Tournament and eliminate one of our biggest direct rivals for that spot in one game. I'd much rather face Michigan State next Sunday feeling like it is a bonus if we get the game rather than absolutely needing it.