After a couple of home blowout wins tonight is a huge game. Really, tonight’s game is the key to the rest of the season. If Purdue wants any shot at winning the Big Ten it likely has to navigate this very difficult stretch of four road games in five (with the home date against a very good Northwestern team) at around 4-1. It just feels like a win tonight erases the nasty road loss at Iowa, whereas a loss further magnifies that defeat in terms of the overall Big Ten race.
The truth is, Wisconsin and Maryland, the two teams Purdue is chasing in the conference race, don’t have a similar five game stretch like this. Wisconsin’s toughest remaining road game is at Michigan State, and they are notoriously hard to beat at home. Somewhere, somehow they have to drop a game no matter what Purdue does.
For Maryland, it is different. Purdue still has a game against the Terrapins where they can make up that game. The Terps still have to go to Minnesota, Northwestern, and Wisconsin too.
Yes, there is a lot of basketball left to be played, but tonight is when things get tense. Purdue has already caused damage to itself with the bad second half against Iowa (again) and the unexpected home loss to Minnesota (and the Gophers completely earned that win). Beating Michigan State in East Lansing would help erase one of those because most people knew this would be a tough game to get before the year started. I never expected to get through the Big Ten undefeated. Losing in East Lansing and losing in Bloomington or College Park were the “most likely losses”.
Basically, this five game stretch is probably the difference between a Big Ten title (and top 3 seed in March) and an average B1G season with about a 6 seed.
From: East Lansing, MI
Date : Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Tip Time: 7pm ET
Location: East Lansing, MI
Arena: Breslin Center (14,797)
Radio: Purdue Radio Network
SiriusXM Satellite: XM (Ch. 381); Internet (Ch. 968)
Live Stats: bit.ly/PurdueLiveStats
Odds: Purdue by 2
2015-16 Record: 29-6, 13-5 Big Ten (lost to Middle Tennessee State 90-81 in NCAA First Round)
2016-17 Record: 12-8, 4-3
Opponent Blog: The Only Colors
Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 66-53
Last Michigan State Win: 66-62 in Big Ten Tournament Championship Game on 3/13/2016
Last Purdue Win: 82-81 (OT) at Purdue on 2/9/2016
NCAA Tournament History: 30 Appearances (19 consecutive), 1979 & 2000 National Champion
Is this the year Michigan State’s 19 year stretch of making the NCAA Tournament comes to an end? They haven’t missed the dance since 1997 and in that time they have been to an impressive seven Final Fours. They have been the class of the Big Ten nationally for two decades, but this year has been dicey. As usual, they have played a very difficult schedule that includes Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor, and Duke. Unfortunately, they lost all four of those games, plus an odd home game to Northeastern. Their best non-conference win came over No. 88 Florida Gulf Coast by a point in a game that had a questionable ending due to a timekeeper’s error (and, of course, the infamous Bo Boroski).
In the Big Ten they have some odd results too. They are 3-0 against Northwestern and Minnesota, giving them their only three top 50 wins of the year, but they lost at Penn State and Ohio State. They enter having lost 3 of 4, including Saturday at Indiana. The sweep of Minnesota is basically keeping them alive for the NCAA Tournament right now. They need a home win over a team like Purdue to ease their concern as we approach March, while a loss would raise a lot of “Will they make the tourney?” questions.
Part of the reason for Michigan State’s struggles is that this is one of Tom Izzo’s youngest teams. Miles Bridges and Joshua Langford were both McDonald’s All-Americans and top 20 guys nationally. Cassius Winston and Nick Ward were ranked 29 and 41, respectively. It was an excellent class, one that was No. 3 nationally according to ESPN. If Purdue brought in a similar class we would have a parade for Matt Painter (at least until he lost a game). More is coming this year too, as Izzo’s 2017 class is No. 16 nationally. They’re going to be extremely good next year.
Things haven’t meshed as well on the floor though this season. Bridges has missed seven games due to injury, but he leads the team at 15.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Ward averages 13.4 points and 6.5 rebounds in less than 20 minutes. Those freshmen have been good along with senior Eron Harris, who averages 12.5 points per game.
Winston is a major concern because of who is compares to at the point. He is tied for the Big Ten lead at 5.6 assists per game with a player Purdue already had major difficulties with: Nate Mason of Minnesota. Winston is not as much of a scorer (only 6.5 points per game) but he is a great distributor and catalyst. Twice this season he has had double-digit assists, including a 21 point, 10 assist game in the loss to Northeastern.
Oh, in case you forgot, Michigan State has another excellent point guard in Lourawls Nairn Jr. Winston and Nairn could be a major handful for our guards to handle, as they will get the basketball where it needs to go.
So far I have gone almost 900 words without discussing the elephant in the room: Caleb Swanigan. As we know, Biggie was originally committed to Michigan State before backing out at the last minute and coming to West Lafayette. That merely made the recruiting battle between Painter and Izzo 2,954-1 in favor of Izzo (approximate). Izzo got the better of Painter twice already this year with Jaren Jackson and Xavier Tillman, but if this Michigan State team had Swanigan in his current form it would be terrifying. You would suddenly be dropping the best player in the Big Ten this year on a team that looks like it is missing a key piece.
It is not like Michigan State got blown out in those four big non-conference games. They lost to Arizona by 2 and Duke by 9. Give them Biggie and this is probably a top 10 team.
But we have Swanigan, and we should be thankful. With Swanigan and Isaac Haas Purdue has a dominant advantage in the post. Michigan State was supposed to have 6’9” senior Gavin Schilling this year too, but he has missed all season with a knee injury and is unlikely to return. Ben Carter was supposed to add immediate help as a 6’9” graduate transfer from UNLV but he also suffered a knee injury and has not played at all.
That leaves the 6’8” Ward as their top player to guard Swanigan and Haas. Bridges at 6’7” is listed as a guard, and 6’6” Kenny Goins is a reserve that plays less than 20 minutes a night. Basically, Swanigan and Haas have a HUGE advantage when they are in the game together. Michigan State is going to have to double Haas, sacrificing someone on the perimeter every time Haas is on the floor, or they are going to have to give up 6-8 inches in size to whoever draws the single assignment on Haas. Haas needs to feast tonight (as long as the officials don’t call him for being 7’2” and so much bigger than anyone else).
Michigan State is good this year, but injuries and youth have made them not quite as good as usual. They are 11th in the Big Ten in scoring at 72.2 points per game (Purdue is second at 82.8). They are 4th in three-point shooting at 37.4%, but Purdue is first at 40.6%. What really hurts is that they are atrocious at the line. Only Rutgers is worse, as Michigan State shoots only 63.9% from the line (Purdue is 74.5%).
Purdue needs to make sure Bridges, Langford, and Harris don’t go crazy on the perimeter. They are all good three-point shooters, but only Harris with 95 attempts is a large volume shooter from there. This is a team that shares the ball well (18 assists per game), so they are going to look for the good shot. They average 14 turnovers per game though.
I feel pretty confident as long as Swanigan and Haas aren’t called for too many dumb fouls or make too many dumb turnovers. The two of them average 6 of Purdue’s 14 turnovers per game. Ideally, this plays out like the first Iowa game. Purdue hits some early threes to loosen up the post defense for the second half, then Haas and Swanigan get a lot of dunks against single coverage in the second half. If Purdue shoots well from the perimeter it is going to be a very long night for MSU.