Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
Purdue has a winning record after five games in the Big Ten. Who would have thought?
It was far from pretty at times, but our young Boilermakers earned the first road victory of their careers. Yes, it was against a Nebraska team that is essentially down to only six players, but a win is a win on the road this year. That's especially true this year. To be competitive you have to fiercely defend your home court and steal a few games on the road at places like Nebraska and Penn State against the teams that aren't as competitive.
The recipe was very similar to the win over Penn State on Sunday. We defensively forced a team into a bad night shooting the basketball (they were 22 of 66 from the floor), we out-rebounded them, and when we had a mismatch like A.J. Hammons vs. anyone not named Andre Almeida we exploited.
This was a big game for the freshmen, especially Hammons and Ronnie Johnson. Hammons continues to edge toward a points-rebounds-blocks triple double with a 14-8-6 night. More importantly, he is seeing that once he gets the ball he can create without shooting because he had three assists.
RJ was on his way to a points-rebounds-assists triple double with a nice 10-5-6 effort. Also more importantly, HE HIT HIS FREE THROWS!! I feel like we need a parade because RJ was 4 of 5 from the line, missing only his final one. In fact, as a team Purdue was doing well until missing a bunch in the final minute.
With Hammons being effective in the post and RJ running the point other things opened up. Terone Johnson was attacking the basket and was even a little Red Button-esque with some critical second half baskets on his way to 18 points. He led Purdue, but it was a quiet 18 in the sense that he didn't have one large block of scoring. Some of his key baskets:
- With 11:03 left TJ connected on a jumper after two Ray Gallegos free throws chipped a 20-point lead down to nine. It was Purdue's first made field goal in over five minutes.
- With 7:37 left and the lead now down to 49-42 after a David Rivers basket TJ grabbed a missed three by D.J. Byrd and tipped it in for another key bucket.
- It wasn't a made basket by TJ, but with 5:48 left Nebraska was down only 51-46 after Dylan Talley scored, but TJ assists D.J. on a huge three-pointer.
- Finally, out of a Purdue timeout TJ scored with 3:21 left to push the lead back to nine. They wouldn't get close the rest of the way.
I have no idea what "effective field goal percentage" means, but those baskets all seemed pretty damned effective to me. All four of Byrd's second half triples were also effective. They needed to be, especially on a night where Purdue's bench only had six points while Nebraska's, with them only playing two players off the bench, got 10 points from Jordan Tyrance alone. Tyrance had not even scored this season before last night.
Purdue's defense, for the second straight game, kept a team's top two scorers in check. Against Penn State it was D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall. Both averaged well over double figures, but combined for only 17 against Purdue. Last night it was Talley and Gallegos, who only had 15 combined. If not for Shavon Shields and a career high 18 points the Cornhuskers are never really in the game.
I like what Boilerdowd said last night. This is the type of game Purdue loses in December. It was a little like the Clemson game in that the boilers built a big lead on the road, but complacent and saw the home team chip away. Clemson never got as close as Nebraska did, but Purdue still needed to close the game out. It is another sign of growth that they did. It also came against a Nebraska team that had only two turnovers all night and played with a lot more energy for most of the second half.
Now, at 9-8 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten Purdue has 15 more games (14 plus at least one regular season game) to continue growing and at least qualify for a postseason tournament. To do so, Purdue likely needs to go a minimum of 7-8 the rest of the way. Five of the games (the two Iowas, the two Northwesterns, and at Penn State) look to be slightly easier than the other 10. Depending on Purdue's placement in the Big Ten the Boilers can also position themselves to play Northwestern, Penn State, or Nebraska again in Chicago at the Big Ten Tournament and thus get set up for another easier win. I also like Purdue's chances on Saturday against West Virginia.
So there are your seven games, with the game at Iowa being the toughest of them by far. I think we can all agree that Purdue should have at least a decent chance of winning each of those.
Outside of Northwestern, Purdue's entire remaining Big Ten home slate comes against ranked teams, and that is where any surprise late season run to the NCAA Tournament will come from. Winning at Indiana or Michigan is unlikely. Winning at Illinois is possible, especially if they go in the tank again like last season. Purdue does not have to go to Ohio State, however, and it gets Minnesota in Mackey Arena.
It is a very big IF, but if the Boilers can get those seven games I mentioned above, steal a road win at Illinois over a team it has already beaten (therefore it has confidence it can beat them again), and grabs two of the four at home against Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, and Michigan State, then suddenly Purdue is 19-13 and playing on Friday of the Big Ten Tournament with a chance at knocking off one of the top four for the magical 20th win. In this year's Big Ten if you get to 20 wins it's going to be hard to not be left out of the tourney, especially considering that Purdue will have obviously shown growth over the season if it gets to 20 wins.
Obviously I am ahead of myself, but since Purdue has taken care of business against teams it should have beaten (Something we could say against Eastern Michigan or Xavier) there is at least a chance still there. That chance gets a little better with one last non-conference game at home Saturday.