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Three Team Mexican Standoff

There is a reason Purdue has never won 6 straight conference road games even though we have the most Big Ten titles in conference history. It's damn hard to do. It's possible to string together a few wins against the bottom of the league as we have this year, but inevitably you will run into that other really, really good team and lose in their house. During our five game road winning streak we got fat off the bottom of the conference with wins at Iowa, Penn State, Northwestern, and Illinois, but there was still the very good Wisconsin win in there. Last night our tendency to shoot poorly was finally our undoing. Even in that we still made a game of things, and I am confident that if there was a return match in West Lafayette we would win.

What we have now is a virtual dead heat for the Big Ten crown and number 1 seed that will even up once we pass our bye this weekend. In my mind all three teams are equal. How can you rank one ahead of the other when Purdue lost to Indiana, who lost to Wisconsin, who lost to Purdue? Even our other loss makes things even. Michigan State is not a bad loss, and the Spartans would be right in this mess as well if not for the losses to Penn State and Iowa. They may be out of it, but they will have a say with games against Wisconsin and Indiana the rest of the way. I'll get more into the rest of the season a little bit later, but let's take a closer look at last night's game.

Positives from the Indiana game:

Turnovers – While this is a huge positive, it also becomes a large source of frustration because were not able to build a big lead from these turnovers due to poor shooting. Indiana was clearly rattled at the start as even the sure-handed Gordon had five miscues. The good news is that if we continue to force 23 turnovers a game the rest of the season we will be in every game and probably win a bunch of them. We have to get better though at capitalizing on them and turning them into points.

Hummel and Martin – Hummel was his usual self, but I was very impressed by Martin's hustle and the way he was able to clean up messes around the basket. His ankle wasn't bothering him in the least and he did a nice job of showing no fear in the face of D.J. White. Unfortunately Scott had a horrible night at the free throw line. Robbie was the best shooter for us last night, but that really isn't saying much.

JuJuan Johnson – JuJuan was in foul trouble for a good portion of the night, but he played fairly well against White when he was in there. He continues to show glimpses of what he can be, and I am very excited to get another year of experience and a year in the weight room on him.

Defending Gordon – I'll give credit to Gordon. We defended him well and allowed him to only make four shots from the field. Great players find ways to get their points, however, and he got his from the free throw line. It's our fault for continuing to foul a great free throw shooter, but at least he wasn't nailing 3-pointers from Bedford.

Negatives from the Indiana game:

Field Goal shooting – This is just the first of what will be a big list of negatives since this is one of the worst games we have played in conference play. We went on the road, got more than 70 shots from the field, forced a ton of turnovers, but still lost by 9. It's not so much that we shot poorly, but we missed a bunch of easy ones as well. Green had a steal under the basket after a made basket in the second half but missed an easy one. Calasan was too strong on a number of lay-ups and putbacks. Open 3-pointers weren't falling. If we had just hit all of the easy ones we missed we win this game going away. If we can ever become a team that shoots just 10% better every game we will be very, very good. Poor shooting is the fire we have played with through most of the conference season, and last night we finally got burned.

Interior play – This has been the silent weakness for us for most of the season, but D.J. White exposed it in a big way last night. White was simply the man of the night with 19 points and 15 rebounds. Imagine if he had been totally healthy. We saw shades of this in the first Wisconsin game with Brian Butch had a field day in the second half, but we were able to survive it. We could not keep White off the offensive glass and he came down with every big defensive board he needed to. Fortunately we don't face a truly dominant big man except maybe Ohio State's Kosta Koufos the rest of the way.

Free throw shooting – This is another area where we are maddeningly inconsistent, but hopefully it will go away as this team matures more. We'll have one night where we shoot 85%, then another where we're back down around 50%. Indiana, in turn, turned this into a huge advantage. They only shot 13 more free throws, which is understandable for a team with a second half lead, but they only missed 4 and outscored us by 19 from the line. This cannot continue.

Surviving the little things – Much was made of Kyle "Frickin'" Tabor and his contributions last night, but to me the plays of the game were made by a guy I pointed out as dangerous in my preview: Lance Stemler. Stemler only attempted one shot and had three points, but his 3-pointer came at a critical juncture. It also came after he made a great hustle play for a block that erased a sure two points at our end of the floor. That was a five point shift and the 3-pointer is what put Indiana in the lead for good. These things get lost in the overall flow of the game, but last night this very small contribution turned out to be huge because it allowed Indiana to take a first half lead despite all the turnovers they were committing. It also allowed them to gain confidence, and they never looked back from there.

Rebounding – This is another glaring statistic. If you look at the Big Ten Conference rebounding statistics as a team we are not that separated from Indiana. It's only a 6 rebound per game edge, which is livable. We simply have to get better at rebounding the basketball, whether it is through recruiting or effort. Fortunately, I am very pleased by the fact that the two areas we need to work on, shooting and rebounding, are correctable and we're still 21-6 and in first place while doing both poorly.

Assists – This has been a huge plus for us all season, but last night we didn't share the basketball very well and it showed. It seemed we rushed too many shots. Of course, if we had hit more shots we naturally would have had more assists. Our ratio of assists to made baskets was still way down. We're not going to get many 3 for 15 nights from the floor for E'Twaun, so as he shoots better assists will go up.

Up next:

We head into our bye defeated, but with a chance to heal and improve in those two key areas. We also still control our own destiny for the conference title with two even teams. In the event of a three way tie we will get the number one seed based on having the best record in head-to-head competition between Indiana and Wisconsin. We would be 2-1 against those two, while Wisconsin would be 2-2 and Indiana 1-2. In a two-way tie we would lose to Indiana (going 0-1 against them), but win against Wisconsin (going 2-0 against them). Basically, if Wisconsin loses, we must have Indiana lose to get the number one seed. As long as we continue to win and Wisconsin does the same, we will be the number 1 seed in Indianapolis.

In our final four conference games we should be favored in at least three of them. Minnesota is a good team and is very well coached, but they have yet to break through against an elite team in the conference. Northwestern is Northwestern, but they have been playing better. I still expect a win over them in our final home game. Traveling to Ohio State could be tricky as they may be in full-fledged panic mode by that point and need a win to get off the bubble. Michigan scares me because they are playing their best basketball of the season, have nothing to lose, and could be on a seven game win streak by then. The bye will prepare us for this tough stretch of games.

In that time Wisconsin and Indiana will also continue to play, and must win their remaining games as well. Indiana probably has the hardest road with a road trip to Michigan State and home game against Ohio State. The Hoosiers will be favored heavily at Northwestern, Penn State, and Minnesota. Wisconsin as two potentially difficult road trips to Illinois and Ohio State in their next two before Michigan State comes to Madison. The Badgers then close with Penn State at home before going to Northwestern. If Wisconsin gets to those two games unscathed they should probably be considered "in the clubhouse" with the championship.

The important thing to remember is that this is just one loss. It is not a bad loss as Indiana is very good and certainly earned it. Winning a Big Ten championship and securing a top four seed in the NCAA tournament is still a strong possibility. We must continue to take the attitude of one game at a time, and simply enjoy some time off to rest before Minnesota comes to town. No matter what seed we get in the Big Ten tournament it is going to be tough with an expected final four of Purdue, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. If that happens, no seed will help or hurt either team. As long as we avoid the 4 seed, which we likely will, we don't have to face an Ohio State team fighting for a bid in the opening round. Things are still looking very, very good as long as we don't stumble in these last four games.