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Clearing a path (with Power Rankings)

It seems as if the IU game has been far off in the distance for a long time. It is bad enough we only get to play the Hoosiers once this year, but the wait is almost interminable having to play 26 other games before them. In this case, however, it may be a good thing. Back in November Indiana was going to be an automatic loss for a team that would struggle to sneak into the NCAA's. Playing them once was viewed as a blessing since we would need every win we could. Since we have started winning and continued to win as the Big Ten season has progressed the scope of this game has become larger and larger. Now it is shaping up to be the Big Ten game of the year. A Boilermaker win clears a path where we could only need four wins in two games to lock up a Big Ten championship and #1 seed in the conference tournament. In that scenario we would need the help of someone else knocking off Wisconsin, but at the very least we would be all alone in controlling our own destiny. A loss pulls us back into a tie with the Badgers and Hoosiers, meaning every game the rest of the way would count for all parties involved.

It has indeed been a long wait, but it is finally here. Tomorrow I will do a more in depth preview of the Hoosiers. I am holding off until I get more information on the D.J. White injury and whether he will play or not. Saturday afternoon we cleared the final hurdle for what will be a return to the classic IU-Purdue rivalry by taking care of business once again on the road. Even though it was just Northwestern, getting a road win is still a big deal to this team. We had four road wins in four years combined before this season, now we have five this year alone, and will need at least two more to secure the conference.

Positives from the Northwestern game:

E'Twaun Moore – All we have heard all season is Eric Gordon this and Eric Gordon that. E'Twaun is growing into a very good player in his own right, and I need only post the following as a reminder of the last time the two shared a court on opposite teams. East Chicago made life very difficult for Gordon in that game, and if D.J. White cannot go tomorrow night we could see a repeat in Bloomington. Just because E'Twaun was the man on Saturday doesn't mean he will be Tuesday night, but he had a pretty good audition in the final tune-up. Who doesn't want to see him and Gordon have a classic scorer's duel one more time?

Keaton Grant – Keaton played probably his best game in weeks. His back-to-back 3-pointers when Northwestern had made a game of it were absolutely crippling and propelled us off on a lethal finishing kick. It is good Keaton is finding his shot again, especially from long range. Lately he has had some very ugly looking 3-point attempts. He also did a very nice job on the glass pulling down seven boards, though Northwestern never seemed to show even an interest in rebounding.

Team Assists – I love that we continue to keep this total high in conjunction with the number of made field goal attempts. Kramer led the march of dimes with eight and had a very good game distributing the ball. We will likely be using him on Gordon Tuesday night, so hopefully he can save something for the offensive end and continue to get his teammates the ball. Robbie also had a good game in this regard. He stepped back a bit with just nine assists, but five assists from him in addition to whatever he scores is a huge plus. It's nice to see him be just a role player a little ahead of schedule, isn't it Terry Hutchens?

Field Goal shooting – 57.8%. I would have to do some checking, but I think that is the best we have shot from the field percentage-wise all season long. Everyone shot the ball fairly well and we were very efficient in terms of getting open looks and knocking them down. I'm not quite sure what we shot down the stretch, but it had to be a pretty good number considering we closed on a 23-6 run. If we continue to shoot this will on Tuesday we will do very well.

Rebounding – Again, it was only Northwestern, but we completely dominated the glass. Sometimes it can be a mental thing and you just need to see the statistics of doubling up an opponent in rebounding. I only got to see about the last 8 minutes or so of the game, but it seemed like Northwestern doesn't even try to crash the glass. That's fine if you shoot 70% and your opponent shoots 30%, but it does not work for the Wildcats.

Negatives from the Northwestern game:

Turnovers – It is a positive that we played a bad game for 30 minutes and still had the ability to just crush a team in the final 10, but we must limit our turnovers against Indiana. I will give credit to Northwestern in that they may have played their best game of the season. We seemed to get a little frustrated with their 1-3-1 early on and turning the ball over 10 times more than your opponent will keep any team in the game. It is one of the rare times we have not taken care of the basketball this season and in turn haven't caused a ton of turnovers. We can get away with against Northwestern, but not Indiana.

Bench play – During our 11 game winning streak we have gotten solid play from our bench. Saturday in Evanston the bench played decently, but it was still subpar compared to what we have seen in the past. Crump's numbers continue to fall off as he only played 7 minutes Saturday. JuJuan played 10 minutes, but gave virtually nothing. Combined with Calasan (who did start) we had another game of nothing in the post and those two will need a better game against D.J. White if he plays. Green and Martin did well, but were not stellar. At least the scrubs got a minute of play at the end.

Up next:

I am not going to split hairs about a 15 point road win against the last place team in the conference. The bottom line is that we struggled for 30 minutes against their funky style of play, then, once we figured it out we put them away. We played poorly and still won by 15, while Northwestern played one of their best games of the season and still lost by 15. That is simply the difference between a first place team and a last place team. When the rematch in West Lafayette comes around we likely will perform better having seen their offense once. A chance to clinch the Big Ten could be on the line, plus I will be in the audience, therefore we have nothing to fear.

We can now turn our attention to Indiana. Even if we lose we are still in good shape. I am a little concerned with the way they dispatched Michigan State, especially without D.J. White for most of the game. Still, we got in White's head last year in West Lafayette. It will be a tough game to win regardless of if he plays anyway, so one player will not make or break them. A loss would put us at two losses, but because of tiebreakers we would still be in good shape for the #1 seed in the Big Ten tourney. Should Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin all tie at 16-2 (very possible) we would have the #1 seed based on better head-to-head record among the three. We would be 2-1, while Wisconsin would be 2-2 and Indiana would be 1-2. Beating Indiana all but locks up the number 1 seed for us, as we would need to lose two of our last four to not get it. Even then Wisconsin would have to win the rest of its games.

Power Rankings:

This week's Power Rankings carry with them the theme of expectations and goals. Every team has high ones coming into the season, but at this point some need to be readjusted. As I rank the teams this week I will try to project where they will try to project realistic goals of where said team should finish the year.
  1. (1) Purdue (21-5, 12-1) Projection: Big Ten Champ, NCAA Sweet 16 – These are very reasonable goals at this point for the Boilers. Winning four of the last five will clinch the first part of that, and likely a top four seed in the NCAA's. After that, who knows? Depending on the draw I can definitely see Purdue getting as far as the second weekend. If they continue to play well going even further is possible.

  2. (3) Wisconsin (21-4, 11-2) Projection: Big Ten Champ (if Purdue loses), NCAA Sweet 16 – Until Tuesday night Wisconsin moves ahead of Indiana based on association. They swept IU, but Purdue swept them making for a clean 1-2-3 at the moment. I almost view Purdue and Wisky as equal right now, and I certainly want no part of them anymore this year. Should the Badgers get past Michigan State and a potentially tricky trip to Champaign this week they could just be waiting for the Boilers to stumble to grab a share of the Big Ten. The sweet 16 is also very reasonable for them.

  3. (2) Indiana (21-4, 10-2) Projection: Big Ten runner-up, NCAA Sweet 16 – Things are very shaky right now in Bloomington to say the least, but they should clear after this week. If the Hoosiers drop the Purdue game they can likely kiss the Big Ten goodbye. Making the sweet 16 is possible, but they will need a healthy D.J. White. If White and Gordon are both on this team can beat anyone in America, but they have struggled against good teams all year. The coaching situation is certainly a circus.

  4. (4) Michigan State (20-5, 8-4) Projection: 4th place Big Ten finish, NCAA 2nd round – Michigan State is a very good team, but they are really beginning to look like a first weekend victim more and more. Going 0-for-Indiana has eliminated them from the Big Ten title discussion, but they can still ruin Wisconsin and Indiana's hopes. They have more than enough talent and coaching experience to do plenty of damage in the NCAA's.

  5. (5) Ohio State (17-9, 8-5) Projection: 5th place, NCAA team – The Buckeyes were securely in the field for most of the season, but losses to Iowa and Michigan recently have them squarely on the bubble right now. Four of their final five games are against the top four in the conference. Losing all four would put them at 18-13 and 9-9 in the Big Ten. They have a very solid non-conference profile and I'll give them kudos for going to Butler, but they are in severe danger right now and need to win at least one of those four.

  6. (6) Minnesota (15-9, 5-7) Projection: 6th place, NIT team – Last week I said the Gophers had a realistic chance of making the NCAA's but would need to finish strong. That chance is now gone after getting killed by Illinois at home. The Gophers gave Wisconsin a scare in Madison on Saturday, but unless they win their final six games or the Big Ten tournament they are done. Playing at Indiana and at Purdue is too much to ask.

  7. (10) Michigan (8-17, 4-9) Projection: 7th place finish, Big Ten tourney irritant – The overall record is still terrible, but I will give some love to the Wolverines for winning three straight and being more consistent recently than the rest of the bottom. Michigan is playing very well right now and I certainly do not want to go to Ann Arbor on the last day of the regular season with anything on the line. It is entirely possible they could be on a seven game winning streak by them.

  8. (8) Penn State (12-12, 4-8) Projection: 6-7 Big Ten wins, possible NIT – With a one point win at home against Illinois the Nittany Lions swept the Illini and stayed alive for the NIT. Penn State will be at .500 with a split of its final six games, but would need two wins in Indy to get NIT eligible. Can they do it?

  9. (9) Illinois (11-15, 3-10) Projection: Big Ten irritant in both reg. season and tourney – If there is one team at the bottom capable of getting hot for four days in Indianapolis and stealing the automatic bid it is Illinois. They would be solidly in the NCAA's if they could simply hit free throws, so if they figure it out for a week then watch out. I am hoping they at least put it all together for the home game this week against Wisconsin.

  10. (7) Iowa (11-15, 4-9) Projection: at least they aren't Northwestern – With visions of an NIT bid dancing in their heads after an upset of Ohio State the Hawks promptly lost games to Michigan and Minnesota. They threatened Wisconsin, but couldn't pull the upset. Now they have the dreaded curse of being Northwestern's best shot at a win.

  11. (11) Northwestern (7-16, 0-12) Projection: last place. Goal: win a game – Northwestern certainly had my attention around 5:30 Saturday afternoon. It's unfortunate that if you had spotted them a 10 point lead to start each game they would still be winless in conference play. Any win at this point has to be considered a huge bonus, and Iowa on the last day of the season is the best shot.