It is still incredibly early in the conference race, but the team written off by many opponents because of a 6-6 start to the season is sitting in the creamy middle of the league. Our Boilers are now 2-2 in the conference and despite what Land Grant Holyland said on Twitter about them being lucky to reach six conference wins, a top eight finish is still plausible. In fact, at the time I guaranteed that Purdue would finish better than 6-12 in the Big Ten, and I still do.
What we saw today was a rare easy win in conference play. Penn State is struggling greatly without Tim Frazier on offense and they had no one that could physically match up with A.J. Hammons. The result was Purdue's best defensive outing of the season short of giving up only 39 points to Lamar. D.J. Newbill did not become a factor until very late, four out of five starters reached double figures, and Purdue got 14 turnovers and six blocks.
Most encouraging was Hammons' line. He finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks, and two assists. I view the two assists as being huge because one came on a very deft dump off to Rapheal Davis where he drew the defense in and made the pass to a cutting Davis for an easy basket. It is plays like that where Purdue can continue to grow and diversify offensively. Until now Hammons has been a bit of a black hole offensively because once the ball goes in it is often not coming out until he shoots. If he can regularly make passes like that after drawing the defense, watch out.
Purdue was greatly helped by an absolutely dismal 15 of 58 shooting from the floor by the Nittany Lions. One of those 15 made baskets was a desperation half-court heave by Brandon Taylor just before halftime. That might have been Penn State's prettiest shot.
There are still a lot of glaring problems. Free throw shooting was again atrocious. Purdue turned the ball over too much and struggled on the defensive glass to start. There were a bunch of lazy passes and, honestly, a lot of unawareness about where the defense was that led to steals. Terone Johnson didn't do a whole lot, but Ronnie Johnson was in control and had 13 points by regularly getting to the rim. If he could only hit his free throws.
I was a little disappointed that Sandi Marcius did not play until earning a trillion with Neal Beshears, Stephen Toyra, and Dru Anthrop at the end. The Chooch had a very nice 11 minutes against Ohio State, but it wasn't enough to get him off the bench until the very end today.
One player who did get off the bench was Davis, who hit a three and reached double figures for only the second time this season. He took Jacob Lawson's starting spot and most of his minutes for a nice 10 and 5 game. We've all wanted to see Ray D. get more playing time. Well, today he made it count.
Steve will be along later to have some more thoughts, but through four games I think we can be very encouraged. Purdue has a pair of wins, fought hard before unraveling at Michigan State, and played a decently solid game against a good Ohio State team. The next four league games have two more winnable games in a trip to Nebraska (who is giving Michigan State all it can handle in East Lansing), and a home game against Iowa. The other two conference games are at Michigan and home for Indiana. While those two games in particular are very difficult matchups, if Purdue plays to its maximum ability they can at least have a shot.
Also in the middle there is the final non-conference game at home against West Virginia, who is hovering around .500 like we are. This is the stretch that decides if Purdue has a reasonable shot of playing somewhere in the postseason. Purdue likely needs to go at least 3-2 over the next five, but after today that seems like a reasonable goal.
As far as other possible wins, I think Purdue can win in State College and sweep a Northwestern team that is slowly falling apart. I wouldn't be totally surprised if Purdue had an upset of Michigan State, Indiana, Michigan, or Minnesota waiting at Mackey Arena.