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Welcome to the Mountain (with Power Rankings)

I admit that in my joy Saturday afternoon there was a certain amount of jealousy. During my time at Purdue I feel I endured both the highs and lows of the basketball program. As a freshman I was witness to the women’s team winning a national title. As a sophomore I saw the men’s team come within a game of the final four that was played right down the road in Indianapolis. As a junior the women’s team once again took center stage as they fell a basket short of their second national title in three years. By the time I was a senior and got the good seats at Mackey (there was no general admission back then) the men’s program had fallen to the point of their first losing season in 20 years. I thought that was bad, watching John Allison (the only 6’11" guy I could outrebound) flail away in the paint. It would, of course get worse.

Saturday, however, announced a return, and I must say I was jealous of the students who stormed the floor at Mackey Arena. I never got to do that. Sure, it was fun to do it for football three times during the magical Rose Bowl year of 2000, but since basketball is my first love I always wanted to do that, but never had the chance.

Saying that this victory marked a return to the mountaintop is not right because it implies we can go no higher. I prefer, instead, to call it a return to the mountain. We announced that we are back as a program and ready to contend for the conference championship. We must now climb this mountain that we are back on, as there are three other teams out there that would certainly be glad to throw us off.

Positives from the Wisconsin game:

"Big Shot" Robbie Hummel – No shot was more critical than his 3-pointer that put us up 55-50. It came right as Wisconsin was making a run and Butch was beginning to assert himself. The ESPN announcers were beginning their love fest for Wisconsin and stating that this would be where the young Boilers would fall apart to the superior team. Robbie’s triple made me jump of my couch and tell the announcer that it was a "shut them up" basket. Robbie only finished with 10 points, but he also had seven boards, five dimes, and one huge blocked shot (playing with four fouls) on the final play. Five of his points were in our final eight as he also hit the clinching free throws. I will admit he probably fouled the guy, but the refs had for the most part swallowed their whistles all day and they weren’t going to call anything short of homicide then.

E’Twaun Moore – E’Twaun showed range with a couple of big 3’s and a soft touch with his runners in the lane. He hit nearly every big shot he took and showed that he is developing into a solid scoring threat. Right now he is one of our few guys that can score off the dribble and create his own shot. He will also get better as he gets used to life in the Big Ten. I am still waiting for a game where he simply goes off on a team, and since he did it against Eric Gordon in last year’s state finals I am hoping he saves it for our trip to Bloomington. Saturday was just a flash of that.

JuJuan Johnson – I was very impressed with the big man’s play on Saturday as he held his own with the much more experienced Butch. He had one thunder dunk and was in position for at least two more had we been able to get him the ball. I would like to see him rebound more, but lay off ont he threes I know they are going to give it to you, but that’s not really your game, JuJuan. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

The crowd – On TV it came off as the best crowd in a long time and the Paint Crew was certainly on their game. My senior year, when it was the Gene Pool (and I still have my shirt!), the student section barely filled its allotment in the lower bowl next to the Boiler Brass. It was a joy to see a completely black clad student section from floor to ceiling for a quarter of the arena. They were on too, as I especially like the "Carl’s better" chant toward Marcus Landry.

Nemanja Calasan – Just a small point here to say that I love his fearlessness to grind in the paint and his emotion. His 3-pointer was a big one in the second half and he needs to stay in the starting lineup. He gives us a post presence and a workman-like attitude we need against teams like Wisconsin.

What needs to improve:

Fouls – We played a most dangerous game against the Badgers as many of our big guns (especially Moore and Hummel) were on the floor in foul trouble throughout the second half. It seemed the refs were calling more ticky-tack fouls against us than Wisconsin, but I also saw several instances where we were reaching can could have been called for more fouls so it evened things out. On a positive note JuJuan didn’t commit a single foul.

Defending Brian Butch – Before this game we had done a good job on Butch throughout his career, but he began to take the game over in the second half. Fortunately we were able to keep him off the offensive glass and out of the final play, but I think that is more Bo Ryan’s fault. He had the hot hand at the time and I don’t understand why they didn’t go to him down two. He had already hit two three’s, so they could go to him for the win. He was also causing all kinds of problems with his size so why not go to him for the tie? We dodged a bullet when he didn’t touch the ball at the end.

Shot selection – We may have relied a little too much on the 3-pointer, but we hit enough. It is fine for Grant, Moore, and even Calasan to shoot threes win open, but did we really need JuJuan shooting from long range? I understand that Wisconsin leads the league in defensive field goal percentage, but we bailed them out by rushing dumb shots too many times. Still, we didn’t get killed on the glass against a bigger team, and we did win the game.

Up next:

As good as this win was we cannot rest on it. There is still plenty of work to do just to make the NCAA’s (which is certainly a strong probability at this point), let alone compete for the conference title. Winning the Big Ten though is a possibility, and it can happen if we simply hold serve at home (Getting another good win over Michigan State in the process), winning games we should win against Illinois, Michigan, and Northwestern on the road, and grabbing at least one of the Ohio State-Indiana-Wisconsin trio on the road. If we do that we’ll finish 15-3 in the conference, and that could be good enough for a share of the crown. At the very least we now control our own destiny in regards to the championship, but there is a lot of basketball still to be played. To have any hope we have to win these next three games (Iowa, at Illinois, Penn State) against teams we have already proven we can beat.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Simpsons-style!

I am a huge fan of the Simpsons, as I own all 10 seasons currently on DVD and got the movie for Christmas. This week’s Power Rankings theme features the villains of the Simpsons, with one assigned to each team in the league.

1. (1) Indiana (17-2, 6-0) – Mr. Burns – The Hoosiers represent the ultimate evil in big Ten basketball for Purdue fans, just like Mr. Burns represents the ultimate evil in Springfield. Kelvin Sampson will also do anything to get an edge in this conference, such as stealing players (Eric Gordon) much like Mr. Burns tried to steal candy from Maggie. Also, Indiana has had a self-satisfied grin since signing Gordon that was taken back a bit by UConn in Assembly Hall this weekend. Excellent!

2. (4) Purdue (15-5, 6-1) – Hank Scorpio – My favorite Simpson villain goes to my favorite team as the Boilers just seized the East Coast with Saturday’s landmark win over Wisconsin. We may not be ready to be given the ownership of the Dallas Cowboys quite yet (as that would be like winning the Big Ten), but owning the Denver Broncos (competing for a title) is still pretty good. Of course, according to some readers, I just don’t know football.

3. (3) Michigan State (18-2, 6-1) – Sideshow Bob – Sideshow Bob is one of the longest running recurring villains in the show’s history, just like how the Spartans are in competition for the conference title every year. Many times though they are foiled by something unexpected (such as losing at Iowa) as how Sideshow Bob is foiled in his episode each season. I guess like sober Barney, the good Sideshow Bob (from the Sideshow Cecil episode) is an unexplained thing of the past.

4. (2) Wisconsin (16-3, 6-1) – Fat Tony – I guess you can call Fat Tony a villain in the show, but he is a very likeable villain. That is why I compare them to Wisconsin because they are a likable opponent in the conference. They work hard, keep their players and coaches within the family (like Fat Tony) and they are legitimate. Now if they can just beat Indiana it would be like Fat Tony’s role in one of my favorite episodes: Homer vs. the 18th Amendment.

5. (6) Ohio State (14-6, 5-2) – Snake – Just like Snake is always getting into trouble, everyone suspects the entire Ohio State athletic department, from football on down to the chess team, is cheating. Just like Snake, they never get caught though. Personally, I think Ohio State is no worse than a number of other programs, and they were able to get back on their feet this week with a nice pair of wins over Illinois and Wisconsin.

6. (5) Minnesota (12-6, 2-4) – Kang and Kodos – Kang and Kodos have showed a lot of ambition in being the rulers of Rigel 7, but they have had difficulty in conquering earth. The same is true for Minnesota, as they did well outside the conference but have struggled since conference play started. Right now they appear to be an NIT team because they have blown a lot of good chances for a signature win, but if they can get one on the road it could help even more.

7. (7) Iowa (10-11, 3-5) – Ned Flanders as the Devil – Iowa is a dangerous team because of how hard they play, but they are still very unassuming because no one thinks they are a danger. The same is true for Ned Flanders, as in one of the early Treehouse of Horror Episodes it was revealed he was the Devil. This team scares me and they could catch us on Wednesday night in Mackey if we’re not careful.

8. (9) Illinois (10-11, 2-6) – Sideshow Cecil – Illinois simply has too much talent to be this bad. Cecil, in his two episodes, had too much talent to be Krusty’s sidekick and it made him very bitter. There’s also enough talent there that Illinois is going to knock off a team from the top four in the conference, so I hope it is not us this coming Saturday in Champaign. When they do it will be like Cecil blowing up the Springfield Dam.

9. (10) Michigan (5-15, 1-7) – Nelson Muntz – Michigan seems like a team that will beat up on Northwestern and Penn State to rule the bottom three, but won’t be a threat to the conference as a hole unless they give another team a bloody nose with a surprise in Ann Arbor. Nelson is the same way, in that he beats up on those smaller, but is never a threat to Springfield as a whole. We could be that team during the last game of the season if we’re not careful.

10. (8) Penn State (10-9, 2-5) – Comic Book Guy – Penn State has a fatal flaw now in losing Geary Claxton, just like how Comic Book Guy has a fatal flaw in being too lazy to do anything other than criticize patrons of the Android’s Dungeon. The real question for the Nittany Lions is can they confuse their opponents by being fluent in Klingon?

11. (11) Northwestern (6-11, 0-7) – Ralph Wiggum – Ralph really isn’t a villain per se, but Northwestern, right now, isn’t really a Big Ten basketball team. I still like Kevin Coble, but losing by 33 to an Illinois team that has struggled all year is a Ralph-like performance.