It is not often that you play a team for the first time in 32 years and have it be a conference game, but tonight's trip up to West Lafayette still felt like a non-conference game. Like many of our non-conference games this year, it was a laugher too. Purdue came out of the gate very business-like and we had a dominant, wire-to-wire victory. Best of all, it counts in the conference standings, meaning just one win in the final three games assures at least a .500 record in the highest rated conference in college basketball.
It was quite a relief to see Purdue to come out and simply take care of business too. The 18 point margin of victory was our largest since beating IPFW 81-56 on December 20th. In Big Ten play, we have to go back to December 31 since we enjoyed a comfortable home win when we beat Illinois, and even then, we trailed for most of the first half. Tonight, the Cornhuskers never led and were only tied when Brandon Ubel equaled Travis Carroll's early basket. Since I didn't get into the arena until about 1 minute before tipoff (stupid 6:30 tipoffs and real jobs getting in the way) I had barely settled into my seat by the time we took the lead for good on a Ryne Smith three.
The rest of the game was something we have not seen a Purdue basketball team do in a long time: whatever it wanted to do when it wanted to do it.
Positives From the Nebraska Game:
Robbie Hummel - Was this Rob's best game this season? He had a few consecutive misses late after the game was well decided, but I don't fault him when he missed five of his last six shots after a 9 of 12 start. It was a vintage Robbie The Conquerer performance that I am glad I got to see since it was the final time I'll ever see him play in Mackey Arena. His shot has finally returned, and not a moment too soon. I am hoping those final five misses are taken out of his account of missed shots allowed over the rest of our games this season.
D.J. Byrd - The photo of him lacing them up and shooting after Sunday's game was priceless, and he didn't miss a beat tonight. This kid is really dialed in right now and absolutely would have made a difference on Sunday. Of that I am now sure. Best of all, he is showing that he will be a senior leader next year.
Travis Carroll - Since Sandi Marcius and Jacob Lawson were anchored to the bench tonight for unknown reasons, it was time for Tacos to get a lot of minutes. That little mid-range jumper he has shown in the past made an appearance on the first play and he continues to put in a lot of work away from the basketball, which is good on both ends of the floor. I think TC might be better suited at the four next year with Hammons/Marcius at the five. I wouldn't mind a super-big lineup at times this year of Carroll/Marcius/Hummel with Hummel at the three just to exploit opposing defenses with Hummel. Another key stat for Carroll was six rebounds, three on the offensive glass.
Lewis Jackson - LewJack did most of his scoring early, then decided to save himself and hand out five assists. Lew continues to get into the lane with impunity on some teams, which will be essential he rest of the way.
Terone Johnson - I think a lot of it came from Rob having a big night, D.J. continuing his hot streak, and both Ryno and LewJack reaching double figures, but TJ had a very quiet 11 point, five rebound, three assist performance with only one turnover. We're going to look a lot better when he has quiet games like this.
Field Goal Shooting - This really should be number one, but you're going to win a lot of basketball games when you shoot 55% and you're above 60% for most of the night. Quite simply, our shots were falling for once. Sometimes basketball really is that simple in this era of advanced KenPom metrics trying to explain every little possession.
Big Ten Officials - Newsflash to the conference: This is what happens when you don't have Drunken Jim burr, TV Teddy, and Disco Eddie Hightower. I know we likely got the C squad tonight, but we had a clean game with few fouls called that was almost on pace to end at 8pm before Nebraska started fouling on purpose at the end. It's amazing how good the basketball can be when you let teams play.
Negatives From The Nebraska Game:
Defense - Yes, we scored over 80 points, but Nebraska got off (and hit) a metric ton of uncontested jumpers. Part of it was a product of having a big lead for most of the night, but for a team that has struggled defensively for most of the year I am not comfortable with taking time off just because we have a rare big lead. At least Bo Spencer was the expected leading scorer instead of another Billy Oliver case.
By virtue of so many teams falling off the bubble it is looking more and more like beating Penn State in a week and winning a game in the Big Ten Tournament will be enough for our sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. I say winning that first game in the Big Ten Tournament not so much because we need another win, but to avoid a bad loss right before Selection Sunday. We're steaming right toward the 5/12 or 6/11 game, which means we open in Indy against the bottom of the conference.
I am greedy though, and I want more. Aside from the second half against Michigan State, we're starting to actually play some good, consistent basketball at the right time. With Byrd back, we played very solidly tonight without Kelsey Barlow. There are still some weaknesses (free throw shooting, no post presence, etc.) but we showed those can be glossed over if we're as balanced as we were tonight and if we attack the basket to open up the three-point shooting.
Because of that, I want one of these last two road games. That shows we have the ability to not only get in the tourney, but do some damage once we're there. One thing I am very proud of is our streak of 13 straight NCAA appearances with at least one victory. It is the longest active streak in the nation, and one I'd like to keep going.
Things are coming together. If it keeps going that way some special things can still happen this year.