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Caged Animal Warning

I must admit that it has been a lot of fun to be a Purdue fan the past couple of days. Yesterday's entry provoked a wealth of discussion and may have even coined the phrase "Bench Mafia" for the Reid, Sutor, Riddell, Mocas, and Wohlford group. Even those guys are playing well and I would like to nominate Riddell as the Godfather of the Bench Mafia since he has been there the longest. My friends over at Black Heart Gold Pants gave me a solid shout out in their latest edition of the power rankings. Indiana simply got crushed on the road Sunday at Michigan State. Purdue continues to get good national press. Most importantly, we are winning again and we control our own destiny when it comes to winning the Big Ten.

It has been a long, long time since other teams have longed for us to get beat in order to better their conference positioning. It's been longer still since our opponents have had to resort to gimmicky promotions such as a "Gray out" in the hopes the home team can get a win. Personally, I feel honored that we have elevated ourselves to this level, and it is evident in the final two games of the season as Michigan is promoting free tickets for students to Sunday's game. When the home crowd feels the need to come out in force to help conquer the visitors it is a sign of respect, much like our own "Black out" for football against Ohio State. We're getting that respect in these last two games, and you know it is respect because teams don't do it for Northwestern.

All of this goodwill and good feeling could end in about five hours when the Ohio State game comes to an end. At that time we will either be one step away from our first Big Ten championship in 12 years, or we will be praying for a miracle Wisconsin loss against two of the worst teams in the league. That one remaining step would be against one of those bottom teams, but first tonight we face a very dangerous caged animal in Columbus. Much has been made of the fact that we have never won in Value City Arena, but until this season we hadn't won at the Kohl Center before, and in truth we hadn't done much winning in any arena other than Mackey for years. Much like every game it seems since we started this renaissance, tonight's game is absolutely critical. I do think we are very focused on the task at hand though.

Since we last saw Ohio State:

It's been awhile, but on January 12th we started our climb to the top by knocking off the Buckeyes in Mackey Arena in what was viewed as a key game for our development. At the time we needed a good solid win just to get into the NCAA discussion. It appeared that this win announced we would battle the Buckeyes for positioning and a bid all season long. No one predicted our rise to the top since, just as no one expected Ohio State to fall as badly as they have. Much like our football team in the month of October, Ohio State has taken a hot start and come crashing down to earth. They now find themselves most likely on the outside looking in when it comes to the NCAA tournament, but they still have time to make a statement and get back into the dance.

Ohio State is not necessarily a bad team, they just haven't beaten very many good teams. ESPN's Bubble Watch tells the story pretty accurately in that Ohio State is only 1-9 against the current RPI top 50. Against the top four in the Big Ten (all RPI top-50 teams) they are currently 0-5 with two more chances this week at home against Purdue and Michigan State. They have also whiffed against teams like Tennessee, North Carolina, and Butler out of conference to go with bad in conference losses to Iowa and Michigan. Those final two losses are probably the most damaging, as wins in those games would almost certainly have the Buckeyes in a much better position at 19-10 overall and 10-6 in the Big Ten.

Saturday's loss to Minnesota was almost equally crushing, because barring a big finishing kick the Gophers are probably NIT bound. If Ohio State loses its final two games it will probably finish behind the Gophers in the Big Ten. This is not something they can afford when they are looking for an at large bid, and finishing in 6th place means winning four games in four days to grab the auto-bid. Only Iowa in 2001 has come all the way from the first day of the Big Ten tournament to grab the auto-bid. It's not so much that winning from the six-seed is harder because you open against the worst team in the league, but by the time Sunday rolls around the fact you have played four games in four days means you're probably out of gas. In the other three instances of a 6+ seed making the Big Ten final (#11 Illinois 1999, #9 Iowa in 2002, and #8 Ohio State in 2003) the four day team has lost by at least 13 points.

Because of that it is safe to say that Ohio State wants no part of being that #6 seed, and it needs a win in these last two games to help avoid that. Getting the five would likely mean back-to-back games with Michigan State before playing Purdue or Wisconsin again the next day. Because of that, what we see tonight could be a preview of our semi-final game in Indianapolis. The 4/5 game also affords them a chance at two straight quality wins in two days, while the 6/11 game means they must exert the energy of beating Northwestern before even getting a chance at the top 4.

Personnel-wise we know what Ohio State is going to do. Jamar Butler is their leading scorer and the team pretty much goes as he goes. Lately he has been right around his average, but as evidenced from his 26 point game against us in West Lafayette he is more than capable of having a big game. I expect that instead of having Grant on him we will be handing the newly minted Secretary of Defense Chris Kramer this tough assignment. As of press time Secretary of Defense holds a narrow lead over Master Thief for Chris' new name, but the polls are still open in the GBI forums.

Kosta Koufos has been scoring plenty of late, but his rebounding numbers have been way down from what they should be. Basically the Koufos-Butler combo is a poor man's version of IU's White-Gordon combo. The supporting cast of Othello Hunter, David Lighty, and Evan Turner is still dangerous but their numbers have been way down as Ohio State has struggled. It is easy to see the Buckeyes' problems when their supporting cast has struggled and their two stars have merely been themselves instead of stepping up and putting up huge numbers.

Game Outlook:

I think this is the type of game that can be judged by the first ten minutes. If Purdue comes out focused on its task while Ohio State continues with its lackluster play this could be a Harry's type of game (Go Ugly Early!). If Ohio State comes out fired up ready to save their season we could be in trouble regardless of how focused we are. Since the Buckeyes have lost 5 of 6 (the one win being over Northwestern) recent history suggests the Buckeyes aren't ready for such a performance, but they are certainly talented enough to do so.

Statistically Ohio State is the best defensive team in terms of opponent's field goal percentage, holding their opponents at just above 38% for the season. That is almost exactly what we shot against them the first time around, and since we are a team that is very up in down in terms of shooting I am feeling good that a good shooting night will provide a win. If we can shoot over 40% we have a good chance, if we can get up over 45% we have an excellent chance.

There is also the element of this game being a bit of a revenge game. Since we played in January we have taken off, while Ohio State only has a 5-9 record since that game after starting 12-3. Our win ended an eight game winning streak for them, and one could say they have not fully recovered since. Ohio State seemed to be in control for most of the game and only lost it in the final seven minutes. They are more than good enough to finish the job if they are still close at that point in tonight's game.

I am most interested in seeing how well Kramer does on Butler. Butler killed us the first time around, so if Kramer can close him off and hold him to even his average logic dictates we should have some success. If Kramer shuts him down entirely like he did against Drew Neitzel I have a hard time not seeing us win this game in a walk. At that point Ohio State would have to get contributions from players that really haven't stepped up for them of late. Let's hope they wait one more game before they decide to do so.

Ohio State shoots the ball well, but not particularly well from 3-point land. Butler's barrage of six 3-pointers in the first game was more of an aberration than a trend. Where Ohio State makes its money is in the paint and if we can keep them contained, both Koufos from banging inside and Butler from driving to the basket, we will take their game away from them. We must continue our concept of team oriented defense and force turnovers to keep them from getting in a rhythm. Rebounding will also be an issue as we out-rebounded them in game one, so we must have a similar effort on the glass.

Offensively we would benefit from the same strategy that worked the first time around. Marcus Green had his best game of the season in a 22-point outing. Grant and Moore were also in double figures while Kramer had five steals. It doesn't necessarily have to be Green, but we have to get similar contributions from 3-4 guys again and continue to be patient offensively. I would love to see us be more patient with the ball and try to work the ball inside to Calasan after the success he had against Northwestern. Ohio State also commits the fewest fouls per game in the conference, so we must cash in on every trip to the free throw line. The first time around we coerced them in 25 fouls when they only average about 14, so if we can do that again it will be a huge plus. We can do this by consistently going towards the basket and not settling for threes.

We have played well on the road this year. I am confident that Coach Painter will have this team focused and ready to play tonight because he has been that way all year. We have come too far and accomplished too much to lose are chance based completely on a lack of focus and "a case of the freshmans" as people have been waiting for us to do. I feel we are past that as a team. If it happens tonight it would be a major step back. Should we lose tonight it will be because Ohio State had a sudden turnaround and just flat-out beat us. I do not think we will beat ourselves because with the possible exception of the Indiana game we have not done that in Big Ten play. Because of this focus, I think we will win because Ohio State hasn't shown anything recently to indicate such a turnaround, but I could be wrong. Purdue 65, Ohio State 60