Here is part two of the 2014-15 season preview. As I mentioned yesterday, the strength of the Big Ten is more than enough to get the Boilers into the NCAA Tournament discussion if they get to 9-9. As much as I advocate that no team with a losing conference record should get an at large berth, two years ago 8-10 in the B1G was enough to get Minnesota and Illinois into the dance. Purdue also finished 8-10 and would have been in the discussion had it not gone 7-6 outside the Big Ten. Even then, close losses to Eastern Michigan, Xavier, Villanova, Bucknell, and Oregon State were the difference. Turn those into wins and Purdue is 20-12, 8-10 at the end of the regular season and likely dancing.
That's why it is a two-part equation. Two years ago the conference portion of the season was strong enough. Last year's 10-3 non-conference wasn't the best, but it was at least enough that a stronger conference season would have had Purdue in the discussion. If you combine 10-3 with even 8-10 this year it might be enough.
December 31 vs. Minnesota - I don't think two teams could have been more evenly matched last season than Purdue and Minnesota. A furious comeback in Minneapolis fell just short as Purdue lost 82-79. In West Lafayette the teams battled for three overtimes before Purdue won 77-74. So after 95 minutes of basketball the Gophers and Boilers were dead even. The loss in West Lafayette was likely one of the things that sent Minnesota to the NIT, but once there they won the whole thing.
Minnesota will be like Purdue in that they will battle all season long to be on the NCAA tourney fringe. That makes this a game where Purdue absolutely must defend home court. A loss would be fodder to be used against them if they're on the Bubble with Minnesota later on. I think the Boilers understand that a strong start at home is necessary, and they get it done. Prediction: win
January 3 vs. Michigan - A year ago Michigan was nearly back in the Final Four, but they lost everything. I like Zak Irvin as a player. I saw him play twice in high school with teammate Gary Harris and both times I thought Irvin was the better player. He is in store for a breakout year, but that is mostly because the Wolverines lost so much. Last year as a better team they needed a last second shot to beat Purdue in West Lafayette. I think Purdue is capable of getting this game too, but losing the first two home games would not surprise me, either. They really are make-or-break games. I'll put this in the "make"column for now. Prediction: win
January 7 at Wisconsin - Purdue has played very well in Madison under Matt Painter, probably better than any other team in the league. That said, it would be absolutely shocking to see them win this year up there. Prediction: Loss
January 10 vs. Maryland - Surprisingly, we have never played Maryland before, so a victory would keep Purdue's record of a winning record vs. every Big Ten (except Ohio State) alive. It is strange to think of them as a Big Ten team, but they are a historically strong program that was 17-15 a year ago, but 9-9 in the ACC. Eight of their 15 losses were by six points or less. Like Purdue, they are a team that is close, but not quite there. I think we defend home court if we're truly an NCAA caliber team, but this is also a possible loss. Prediction: win
January 17 at Penn State - Purdue has lost two in a row here and Penn State sucks at basketball. They have some decent players like D.J. Newbill, but this is Penn State. Seasons are ruined when you lose to a team like Penn State, so Purdue needs to take care of business. Prediction: win
January 21 at Illinois - This is always a tough game in Champaign, but Purdue did win here a year ago. In fact, it was our lone road win in the conference. Matt Painter has had the Illini's number since he came to Purdue, going 12-5 against the Illinois including 9 of the last 10. That said, I don't have a good feeling here. At some point Illinois has to get it done on their own home floor against us. Prediction: Loss
January 24 vs. Iowa - The Hawkeyes are another middle of the pack team that makes this pretty much a toss-up on our floor. Last year Rapheal Davis had a solid game in the only meeting in Iowa City, but Purdue lost. Just like Purdue's first three home games, this is another match up where Purdue can win, but it is not guaranteed. Purdue can also lose quite easily, so thinking they go 4-0 in such games is wildly implausible. Prediction: loss
January 28 vs. Indiana - This was the last team we beat last year at all. After numerous transfers the Hoosiers are pretty much in the same boat as us. They are relying on a strong freshman class and a few upperclassmen. Of many games at home, this is pretty much a must-win. Prediction: win
January 31 at Northwestern - Why in the world have we sucked against Northwestern of late? We got swept by them last year and somehow lost in double overtime when they were playing Aaron Liberman against A.J. Hammons in the second overtime. That was the beginning of the end last year, as there is no way we should have lost that game. We should have pounded the ball inside to Hammons on every play of the second OT and let him dominate Liberman. This is the type of game we have to turn around in 2014-15. Prediction: win
February 4 vs. Ohio State - At this point we're Ohio State's bitch. Matt Painter is only 6-15 against them and we have lost six in a row. That has allowed them to take an 88-83 overall lead in the series, which is the only team in the Big Ten with an all-time winning record over us. They enter the season ranked 20th and aren't as good as in the past. We still lost to them all three times last year. Prediction: loss
February 7 at Minnesota - A season sweep of the Gophers would be very nice. It will also be very difficult to do. Prediction: loss
February 12 at Rutgers - There are few things that will be completely embarrassing about the 2014-15 season. Losing to Rutgers would be one of them. When you envy Northwestern's recent basketball history, you're awful. Prediction: win
February 15 vs. Nebraska - Stop me if I have said this before, but this is another tough game at home. It's almost exactly like Maryland, Minnesota, Michigan, or Indiana in that it is a complete toss-up. An NCAA-worthy team takes care of business at home. Prediction: win
February 19 at Indiana - It is extremely difficult for Purdue to sweep Indiana in a great year when Indiana is terrible, as evidenced by the 2009-10 and 10-11 seasons. This year, when the teams are evenly matched? Yeah. I'll be happy with a split. Prediction: loss
February 26 vs. Rutgers - The Big Ten was kind enough to gift us with two games against Rutgers. We had damn well better take advantage of it. Prediction: win
March 1 at Ohio State - We're especially Ohio State's bitch at Value City arena, where we have only won once. It took our best team in decades to do so, as well. At least we'll always have Kelsey Barlow dunking on Sullinger. Prediction: loss
March 4 at Michigan State - Another place where it is going to be very hard to win, even in a great year. Prediction: loss
March 7 vs. Illinois - Right now I have us at 9-8 heading into the final game of the regular season, this time at home against an Illinois team that will also likely be in the 8-11 win range in Big Ten play. Needing a win to get on the good side of the Bubble at home I think the boilers get it done, as a home-and-home split with a similar team is just fine. Prediction: win
Best-case scenario: 12-6 - This is with Purdue sweeping Rutgers, not dick-tripping at Penn State and Northwestern, and taking care of business in its home-only single plays against Michigan, Nebraska, Maryland, and Iowa while getting splits with Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, and Ohio State. I would be doing backflips in this scenario.
Worst-case scenario: 6-12 - I don't think the chemistry issues can be worse than last year, but this is still a very young team. In a best-case scenario we have A.J. Hammons playing at an all-Big Ten level, Ray D. playing solid, and the freshmen giving strong contributions. In the worst-case scenario they play, well, like freshmen, and even with a great Hammons performance it may not be enough.
The Big Ten has one great team (Wisconsin), a few solid teams (Michigan State, Ohio State) and a whole crapload of teams that could beat anyone or lose to anyone (pretty much everyone else, minus Penn State and Rutgers). The season will be decided by how many of these teams Purdue beats.