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Two team race

Robbie Hummel, and perhaps this entire Purdue Boilermaker basketball team, has reached dead hooker in the trunk status. Please allow me to explain. This is an honor I bestow on individual players that, because of their accomplishments, they reach a rare level of love from their fans. Basically, the athlete in question becomes so well-loved by his or her community that they could be caught with a dead hooker in the trunk of their car and the fans would be like, "Now you really shouldn't have done that, but we're going to let it slide. Just don't do it again." Reggie Miller reached this stage in his career with the Pacers. Peyton Manning reached it last year in Indianapolis after winning the Super Bowl. As a Purdue example, Drew Brees reached this level when he took us to the Rose Bowl, and after his $2 million gift last season he's now allowed two dead hookers in his trunk. Last night Robbie Hummel and the Boilers (they are no longer babies by a longshot) reached this level. Robbie is probably slightly above everyone else at the moment, but there is no word on if he will try to cross the Wabash today without the aid of a bridge or boat.

What else can you say about this team? I honestly felt before the season we could be a 20 win team and make the NCAA's. Even after the Wofford and Iowa State losses I kept the faith and said 11 Big Ten wins would be reasonable and, because that would get us to the magical 20 win plateau, we would go dancing. I even maintained my much changed tier system to outline exactly what was needed to make it happen. I honestly did not expect what has occurred. I did not expect to be 3 points away from an undefeated Big Ten record after 12 games, and those three points could have been made up had Hummel not been sick. This is now a two-team race at the moment, and the other team that controls their own destiny was just rocked by a recruiting scandal that will certainly hang over them for the rest of the season.

I keep thinking I am living in a dream. During my four years at Purdue I got season tickets each year. As a freshman we squeezed into the tournament when we probably shouldn't have. We were the consensus "last team in" but made the most of that #10 seed by upsetting Texas and Miami (FL) for a surprising run to the sweet 16. As a sophomore a group of five seniors very nearly took us to the Final Four as we beat Dayton, #3 Oklahoma, and Gonzaga along the way. I was devastated when a loss to #8 seeded Wisconsin meant no Final Four for me, since it was just down the road in Indianapolis. By the time I started getting good seats as a junior and senior we were on the downswing. As a junior injuries to Rodney Smith and John Allison meant an NIT bid, but we at least made the final 8 there. As a senior I finally had great seats in the 3rd row, but we also had no IU home game and stumbled to a 13-18 record, our worst season in 20 years. I remember senior day that year against lowly Penn State. My roommate and I went because we had paid for the tickets, but there may have been 100 students at best in the stands. This wasn't even the low point.

Somehow things got worse, but now we're back. After watching the tape of last night's game I was so excited I could barely sleep last night. I wasted little time this morning in ordering tickets to the Northwestern game because with wins against the Wildcats and IU in the next week could mean a Big Ten clinching game against the worst team in the league. I've already seen this team once in person, and if it weren't for a potential move and a ton of driving in the winter I would be considering season tickets for next year. This team's energy is infectious, and absolutely nothing would surprise me at this point. We can play with any team in the country right now, just as we proved last year when we took the eventual national champs to the wire.

Positives from the Michigan State game:

The crowd – I haven't said enough about the fans this season, but they were great last night. I fully expect the last two games against Minnesota and Northwestern to sell out, so I am glad I got my nosebleed seats for the Northwestern game now. I simply have to see this rocking Mackey atmosphere again because I got a little gypped as a student. With two shot clock violations in the first three possessions the crowd got into even more of a frenzy early, and you could almost see the collective "oh shit" faces on all of the Spartan players. I'll give credit to them for fighting back, but the crowd overwhelmed them in the first half.

Robbie Hummel – I'm still waiting for an apology from Terry Hutchens on saying he won't be an impact player. He could probably play in a wheelchair against Northwestern and still rack up back-to-back player of the week honors. Robbie gave every ounce of himself into that game last night. Even at the end when he was exhausted he still stepped up and hit not one, but two critical shots to close the game out. His hustle plays defined the game. There are simply too many to list here, but the play where he followed his own miss of a 3-pointer with a putback and his save-get open-3 combo really stood out. There is no question in my mind the game in East Lansing would have been different if he had been well.

Chris Kramer – Take notes, Eric Gordon. Kramer barely let Drew Neitzel breathe last night without his permission. If not for some free throws at the end when we committed some dumb fouls Neitzel would have been even less of a factor. Kramer's defensive effort last night was nothing short of masterful against one of the most experienced shooters in the entire league. Sure, he didn't come up with the performance on the offensive end that he did in East Lansing, but the four points Chris did score were huge. His drive to the basket with 2:34 left and a 1-point lead was absolutely critical. Watching him face off against Gordon will be fun to watch. Let's see Gordon score all those points with 5 steals, 5 assists, and 2 blocks.

Rebounding – This was a major point of emphasis and the team responded. I still would like to see us rebound even better, but that will come with time and effort. In listening to the pregame show on the radio Coach Painter talked about how this group of guys really listens in team meetings. Instead of looking at the floor they are almost always dialed in to what he is saying and are very eager to learn. It is clear they listened when it came to rebounding before this game because the effort was much better.

Team defense – Hold on, I think Michigan State just turned the ball over again. I love teams that get things done with defense, and we were ready to go from the beginning last night by forcing a shot clock violation on the first possession. That set the tone for the evening. It is easy to win when you force 17 turnovers and get nine steals. By comparison the high school game I covered last night between two good teams had 16 turnovers combined. That shows how rattled Michigan State was.

Negatives from the Michigan State game:

Defending Kalin Lucas – Kalin, my advice to you is to please go to the NBA early. Go make some millions. In two games against us he has scored 36 points off the bench on 13 of 19 shooting. He is also 10 of 12 from the line and has been a nightmare for us each time. He's also only a freshman, so we will be seeing him for awhile unless he heeds my advice. This kid is a gamer, and Michigan State has to be very excited about him. He's one of those guys that is almost better coming off the bench.

Shot Selection – I felt there were too many times last night where we settled for the 3-pointer. We got some good looks but they just weren't falling. Ironically our most contested shots, like E'Twaun's from the left elbow, were the ones that were dropping. It's almost like we were going for the big blow while Michigan State was making its comeback instead of being patient and attacking the basket. We keep winning games while shooting 40% or worse, but it will come back to bite us. Larry Clisby pointed out that the reason we're winning is defense and turnovers, so imagine how much better we would be if we could start shooting better.

Post play – The rebounding was better, but I still think we need more scoring in the paint from Calasan and Johnson. Johnson will develop in time and I am very pleased with what he has done so far, but we need Calasan to be more consistent on the low block. I do like how he draws defenders out though and opens the lane up for the drives. We just weren't taking that very often last night, but we had success when we did. Green's dunk in traffic and Kramer's key basket and a foul at the end are examples.

Up next:

Since I am not part of the team I can say this, but we get a bit of break by traveling to Northwestern on Saturday. We get what should be a relatively easy game while Indiana has not one, but two wars to fight before they get to us. The Hoosiers may not have a ton left in the tank after facing Wisconsin and Michigan State back-to-back, plus dealing with all of the news about their NCAA investigations. Still, it is a rivalry game, and the Hoosiers are always ready for us.

We can't look past Northwestern though. That game counts just as much in the standings as the IU game. We should be able to win going away since they have lost every game in conference play by more than 10 points, but any time you underestimate a team they can beat you. I trust that the guys will take this game seriously and take care of business. As long as we win I don't care by how much we win because any road win in this conference is a good one.

That being said, I don't really expect any problems on Saturday. Indiana is certainly not counting on us dropping a game to Northwestern, and should we lose it would be a major step back after a number of positive steps forward. Indiana has a ton of things to deal with right now both on and off the court, while we simply have one game against the league's worst team to focus on before the biggest IU-Purdue game in years. I honestly would like to see them win tonight against Wisconsin, then lose to Michigan State. Assuming we beat Northwestern, we would then have a chance to take a two game lead on the entire conference with four games to play, plus we would own tiebreakers with Wisconsin and Indiana should we beat the Hoosiers. All we would then need to do is take care of business at home against Minnesota and the Northwestern game on March 1st, with this T-Mill in attendance, can clinch the Big Ten title. It is indeed business time.