The non-conference schedule is done and while Purdue did not tear through it at 13-0 like we had all hoped, a 10-3 finish is at least respectable. Today's win was over the No. 60 KenPom team and only the loss to Washington State is bordering on a bad loss. Butler and Oklahoma State are both very likely NCAA Tournament teams, and the Washington State loss basically denied Purdue a chance of playing another decent team in St. Joseph's (No. 78 on KenPom), sending the Boilers to play Siena (No. 233) again.
When you look at the RPI, Purdue has some work to do. The current team RPI is at 96, and Purdue likely needs to get in at least the 50's to be considered for an at large berth. That will go up with 16 games left against the current top 100, while Purdue has only played three top 100 teams so far. Purdue's best wins are over Eastern Michigan (No. 67), and Rider (No. 103). Boston College and West Virginia can see their numbers rise drastically since they are members of major conferences, but the 0-2 mark against the top 50 is not good.
Purdue still plays the No. 1 RPI team, Wisconsin, twice, and the Boilers have historically had the Badgers' number in Mackey Arena. Matt Painter has also won three times at the Kohl Center, something no other Big Ten coach can say. A total of eight games in the Big Ten are against top 50 RPI teams, with eight more against the top 100.
I think Purdue needs to get 10 Big Ten victories to at least be in the discussion for an at large berth. How much they are in that discussion depends on what 10 games are wins. If Purdue gets to 11-7 before the Big Ten Tournament then I really will feel safe on Selection Sunday, especially if Purdue avoids a Thursday loss in Indianapolis.
So how does Purdue get to ten wins? Well, here is a road map:
Absolute must wins:
Northwestern (No. 146), Penn State (No. 100) = 4 wins
Purdue gets a break in getting both the Wildcats and Nittany Lions twice, so four of the 10 wins needed have to come from those games. Penn State has a dangerous backcourt, but still has bad losses to Princeton and Bucknell. They are one of those dangerous teams that likely won't contend for an NCAA bid, but they can definitely derail someone else's bid. Just look at Nebraska last year for Iowa.
Northwestern just does not have the horses yet under Chris Collins to compete in a rough Big Ten. Purdue needs to avoid being one of their upset victims.
Purdue could get a third game against either of these teams, as they are mostly likely going to be in the 11 and 12 spots in Indianapolis, so a 5th or 6th place finish gets them on day one of the Big Ten Tournament.
Battling other bubble teams:
Indiana (No. 90), Michigan (No. 86), Nebraska (No. 84), Minnesota (No. 30) = 4-5 wins
Wait a minute, Minnesota's RPI is No. 30? How the hell did that happen? Apparently Nebraska-Omaha and New Orleans are now top 100 wins. That likely won't last. The Golden Gophers have been a bit of a surprise and their win over Florida State is nice, but they seem a little over-inflated.
Indiana and Michigan are two teams that have a lot of questions. The Wolverines at least responded well with a win over Stanford, as they finally came through against a good team. Indiana is 0-2 against the top 100 and their best win is against No. 165 Washington. They have managed to do even less than Purdue in the non-conference, and that is saying something.
As for Nebraska, Purdue gets the Cornhuskers twice and they have been competitive against Creighton and UMass. They aren't a bad team at all, but they are beatable.
Purdue plays Nebraska twice, Minnesota twice, Michigan twice, and Indiana once in this group. I don't think asking the Boilers to hold serve at home against those four is too much, and a road win over Nebraska in addition to that would be a nice bonus, as they are likely the weakest of those four teams.
Wisconsin (No. 1), Ohio State (No. 13), Michigan State (No. 16) Illinois (No. 18), Iowa (No. 42) = 2 wins
This is a tough, but not impossible group to face. Purdue won eight in a row over the Fighting Illini before losing in Champaign last year, though the only game against them is in Champaign. Heading to Iowa is tricky, as the Hawkeyes are my dark horse Big Ten contender. There are only seven games against this group and win on the road against them would surprise me. It is the kind of surprise that would be very good for the NCAA profile, however.
Can Purdue knock off Wisconsin, Ohio State, or Michigan State in West Lafayette? I honestly don't know. We have the talent to do so and we have looked like a different team in Mackey Arena, but all three are very, very good teams. I think Purdue has to get at least one of them to have a reasonable shot at the NCAA tournament. Not getting one of those three means Purdue has to win in Iowa City, Champaign, Ann Arbor, or Minneapolis.
I think Purdue takes care of business in both Northwestern games and both Penn State games. Losing one of those would be rather catastrophic. I think the Boilers do themselves a favor and sweep Nebraska as well for six wins. From there, I think Purdue beat Minnesota in Mackey and at least comes close in Minneapolis. I think Purdue can get Michigan in Mackey Arena as well. Surprisingly, Purdue has a winning all-time record at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor and at the State Farm Center in Champaign, so we at least know we can play well there. I think Purdue gets the Illini in Champaign.
So that gives us Northwestern (x2), Penn State (x2), Nebraska (x2), Minnesota (home), Michigan (home), and Illinois. Needing one more victory I think a turning point game is the Indiana game. Purdue gets the Hoosiers only once and it is always the biggest home game of the year. It could be a game with huge NCAA implications, so I am thankful we get it at home. Indiana has also won four straight against our Boilers after Purdue had won five straight.
I'll say it now: If Purdue wants to play in the NCAA Tournament it has to beat Indiana. It looks like it will be a fulcrum game between having an NCAA resume and not having one based on how things look above.