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Protecting the Status quo

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I will be honest. With as team as young as Purdue is and as hot as we have been playing, I expected to drop one of these last three games. Against Iowa, Illinois, and Penn State I expected us to have one game where we weren't all there, we reverted to our youth, and it would cost us. It very nearly happened last week against Iowa, but we avoided it. Against both Illinois and Penn State we were very impressive in the fact that we took care of business and avoided a pair of bad losses. With the way Iowa is playing right now our season sweep of them is only going to look better and better. Since we made it through this stretch now, I am starting to think now that the bad loss won't be coming. Of course, if it does come it will be against one of the two worst teams in the conference and be even more damaging. If we're going to be a championship caliber team we must avoid those losses.

I am not the only one that has been expecting this. In today's CBS bracket projections we took a step back from a #8 seed to a #10 seed despite an eight game winning streak and 9-1 record in the Big Ten. All the national projections continue to wait for this team to start playing like freshmen even though it is becoming more and more evident that they aren't going to. The CBS projections are even more ludicrous when you consider we are leading one of the major conferences in the country, have won 8 in a row (including 3 games in the 7 days since the last projection), and a team like Michigan State is a #4 seed despite losing to two teams we have already beaten twice each.

Perhaps it is fortunate that some people continue to think of us as a fascinating story, but not a real contender. With one more win this weekend, however, that status will go away. Because we have taken care of business to this point we now find ourselves with a chance to take full control of this race by sweeping Wisconsin. They face a difficult road test tonight against a strong Iowa team, and I would not be surprised to see the Hawkeyes pull the upset. The next four games will decide our Big Ten title fate, but for now we can enjoy the sweep of Penn State.

Positives from the Penn State game redux:

Sharing the basketball – This is the most important statistic when it comes to identifying a good team as opposed to one with a few standout players. Last night we had assists on 15 of our 23 baskets from the field, but no player had more than four assists. All told seven guys had at least one pass to set up a score, while we only had eight guys play significant minutes. This unselfish style of basketball is critical not only for conference championships, but in March as well. I like to see the assists stats higher more than I like seeing the scoring spread around.

Marcus Green – With Keaton Grant struggling and Scott Martin now on the shelf for an indefinite amount of time we needed someone like Green to step up. This is the second straight game where his bench contribution has kept us in it early before the starters closed the deal late. I talk a lot about finding the hand and continuing to go back to it. We have done well in doing just that this season as well as recognizing when the hot hand has changed and finding it again. Right now that hot hand is Green with Moore.

E'Twaun Moore – I have absolutely no problem with nights like last night becoming a typical quiet night for E'Twaun. It's amazing to watch him as a player right now because you can just see the confidence he has compared to earlier in the season. Confidence is incredibly dangerous to other teams when you are a scorer, and this is what we need E'Twaun to be. His four assists were just as important as his 16 points and make him an even more complete player.

Robbie Hummel – I forget where I read it this week, but I believe it was Boiled Sports that called Robbie Hummel, "the glue." I think this is a great name for him because he makes everything stick together since he does whatever is asked of him. Last night he was our leading scorer and rebounder, and like most good glues he can mesh with anyone we throw out on the floor. I love how he can play both inside and outside as well.

Attitude – It felt like last night we had a different attitude than we did against Iowa last week. We were determined as a team to take care of business against an inferior opponent and, even though the Nittany Lions shot the lights out in the first half, we never flinched. We also never flinched when Martin went down with his injury. We played our game, played our defense, and knew that if we stuck to our plan we would win at the end of the day. That is a sign of maturity beyond this team's years. They were determined not to give up a bad loss at home. As a result we shut them down in the second half and allowed very little while putting them away.

Negatives from the Penn State game redux:

The Martin injury – Scott isn't one of our go to guys at the moment, but he plays a critical role as far as depth and our nine man rotation goes. We need that depth going into the Wisconsin game, and if Martin cannot play I would like to see us go to Chris Reid or Chad Sutor for a few minutes just to have some additional bigs against their front line. Martin's scoring has been down since we entered conference play, but missing him takes away one of our potential weapons. It also messes with the rotation that has been working so well.

Keaton Grant – A few weeks ago he couldn't miss. Now he can't hit anything. I know Keaton is battling a number of injuries right now, but we at least need him out there as a decoy and potential scorer. He'll find his shot again and I don't mind someone else hitting them for awhile because it keeps teams guessing.

Up next:

Other than the two things mentioned above very little went wrong. We won the game going away, Reid, Riddel, and Sutor got to play, and even little used walk-ons Garrett Mocas and Mark Wohlford got the first game action of their careers. When guys like that get to play something is either going very right or very wrong. Personally, I think it is great that Painter gave Mocas and Wohlford, two guys that are merely practice players, the chance to play even if it was for less than a minute.

This game was also incredibly important as a final tune up before a critical run, and almost as a final test. It is a test because once again, we did not have a bad conference loss. With five teams milling around at the bottom of the league we are 7 of 7 against them, and the remaining three games are against the worst two. To this point we have taken care of business against teams we should beat, with only the Wisconsin game and maybe the Ohio State game as examples of us playing above ourselves. Now we have four games that will decide not only our NCAA seeding, but if we will win the Big Ten this year. To win the Big Ten we must at least split the next four. Winning three of four would be even better. If we come out of the next four having done so and we are still just a 10 seed in the projections then we have a very loud protest to file.

We have proven we can beat Wisconsin, but winning on their floor will be very difficult. Should we pull off the sweep there is no way we won't be in the top 20 next week. We need to look at the Michigan State home game as the most critical to our Big Ten title hopes. They have not played well on the road so far and with so many difficult games left for the Spartans we can bury them in the race by beating them in Mackey. The trip to Northwestern needs to be a win, and anything less is a huge disappointment. Finally, we have Indiana, and a game that will possibly return to national prominence the Indiana-Purdue rivalry. We can beat these guys. We're a deeper, more balanced, and more complete team than the Hoosiers. Winning on their floor could put us in the driver's seat for the Big Ten, give us a better seed in the NCAA's, and put a dagger in their hopes because we would own the tiebreaker for any Big Ten tournament seed. It is a four team race right now, and we're slightly out in front. Let's increase that lead Saturday night.