Purdue begins an absolutely critical week for its season coming off of its third stinging loss in conference play. The good news is that it is at home. This week is the best remaining opportunity to impress the NCAA committee because Purdue has three games left against current top 25 teams, but two of them are this week. The bad news is that it is the absolute last chance to keep the fading hopes of a 23rd Big Ten regular season title alive.
And those hopes are alive. If Purdue wins both games this week it is right back in the race, needing only two additional Wisconsin losses and one additional Maryland loss. You already know you’re 33% of the way there too since Maryland and Wisconsin still play each other. Things could even move a step forward tonight with both playing on the road against teams desperate to get back into NCAA consideration.
Yes, the Nebraska loss sucked. It was a bad loss and Purdue should have won. Fortunately, we have the opportunity this week to overcome it. You can either piss and moan about it or go out and seize the opportunity given with back-to-back games against ranked teams. That starts tomorrow night against… NORTHWESTERN?
Yes, the perennial doormat of the Big Ten is in the midst of the best season in school history. Barring a collapse, they will reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. If they win in Mackey Arena they can even dream bigger and think of their first Big Ten championship in over 80 years. They have a couple good non-conference wins over Wake Forest and Dayton, competitive losses to Notre Dame and Butler, and so far they have avoided the “bad loss” in conference.
This would be an epic win for Northwestern. It would likely seal their bid as long as they don’t do something stupid like lose to Rutgers at home. As a result, for our preview I spoke with Zach Pereles of InsideNU to learn more about the Wildcats. His answers follow our usual game day info.
From: Evanston, IL
Date : Wednesday, February 1, 2017
Tip Time: 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: West Lafayette, Indiana
Arena: Mackey Arena (14,804)
Radio: Purdue Radio Network
SiriusXM Satellite: XM (Ch. 381); Internet (Ch. 968)
Live Stats: bit.ly/PurdueLiveStats
Odds: No Line Yet
2015-16 Record: 20-12, 8-10 Big Ten
2016-17 Record: 18-4, 7-2
Opponent Blog: InsideNU
Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 125-46
Last Northwestern Win: 74-65 at Purdue on 3/9/2014
Last Purdue Win: 71-61 at Purdue on 2/16/2016
NCAA Tournament History: Never Appeared
T-Mill: Is the The Year?
Zach: I don't want to jinx it... but yes. Northwestern's taken care of everyone it has needed to with perhaps an exception coming to Minnesota, but the Gophers were much better then than they are now. They ended a 40-year losing streak at Ohio State. This is the best record through 22 games ever. This is The Year.
T-Mill: Dreaming beyond The Year, do you feel a win at Mackey Arena on Wednesday not only clinches that goal, but opens the door to a potential Big Ten title?
Zach: I'd put Northwestern's chances at about 70 percent right now, and if the Wildcats can win at Mackey, that shoots up to about 90 percent; it would be Northwestern's best win by far this season. It'd take a major collapse — though that's what longtime Northwestern fans have come to expect out of this program — to miss the tournament. And if the Wildcats can manage a win at Purdue, they certainly have an outside shot at the Big Ten regular season crown, but I still don't think they get there. Northwestern still has to go to Assembly Hall and the Kohl Center. Even Illinois isn't a pushover at home. This would obviously be a huge step forward, but three tough road tests remain after this, not to mention meetings against Purdue and Maryland in Evanston.
T-Mill: What has stood out the most for Northwestern during this lengthy winning streak?
Zach: The depth and variety of scoring sources is unprecedented for this program. The three most recent games serve a perfect example. At Ohio State, Northwestern struggled mightily from the field but got 21 points from shooting guard Scottie Lindsey, who had a big second half. When Northwestern returned home to face Nebraska, Lindsey, the team's leading scorer, was nowhere near 100 percent due to some back spasms. Center Dererk Pardon stepped up and contributed 19 points and 22 rebounds and forward Vic Law Jr. had 20 points after a tough first half. Then against Indiana, Bryant McIntosh, who has struggled with his shot for extended periods of time this season, went for 21 points and added 8 assists. With both Law Jr. and Lindsey struggling for most of the game, Sanjay Lumpkin also came up huge with 15 points and some excellent defense. This is the most skilled and deepest Northwestern team in a while.
T-Mill: Dererk Pardon looks like a good matchup against Caleb Swanigan. He even had a Swanigan-esque game last week. What are you looking for there?
Zach: Pardon is a fantastic defender and rim protector. Though he's only 6-foot-8, he has a 7-foot-2 wingspan, and he anticipates rebounds really well. I'm really looking forward to seeing how he's developed since last year, when he fouled out in six minutes against the Boilermakers. I'm not sure how Northwestern will matchup with Purdue if Swanigan and Haas play at the same time, but I think Pardon can somewhat hold his own against Swanigan. Biggie is going to get his points. How hard Pardon makes him work for them is key. Offensively, anything Pardon adds is a big boost. He didn't score (or even attempt a shot) against Indiana.
T-Mill: Purdue has struggled against dynamic guards this season. Does that give Bryant McIntosh a huge advantage here?
Zach: McIntosh has been more assertive getting into the lane during the recent stretch of games, even though his shot isn't always falling. He can be very good in pick-and-roll (with Pardon) or pick-and-pop (with Gavin Skelly) situations. If McIntosh is cashing in on his patented floater and is a scoring threat in the lane, that's a huge boost for this team. If not, his effectiveness is limited somewhat, though he is a really good passer. The best strategy would be to be aggressive and get right up into McIntosh on the perimeter so he can't get a running start toward the man setting the screen. Still, I'd expect the Indiana native to be assertive and look for his shot early. If he's hitting it, Northwestern's chances to pull the upset are much, much improved.
T-Mill: Northwestern doesn't really have anyone to match up with Isaac Haas, so what is the plan to defend him?
Zach: I think this is where Barret Benson comes into play. He's a skilled 6-foot-10 true freshman who is still adjusting to the speed of the college game. Pardon missed eight games earlier this year with a thumb injury, and Benson started all eight of those games, which has been huge for his development. I think if Swanigan and Haas are in at the same time, Northwestern could deploy some Pardon-Benson front lines, though I don't think that duo has ever been on the floor together; both are true centers. The Wildcats could also look to Lumpkin, a strong 6-foot-6 defensive specialist, to help with Swanigan. Though there's a height mismatch, Northwestern has used Lumpkin on bigs such as Wake Forest star John Collins and even Indiana's Thomas Bryant. Don't be shocked to see him defend multiple positions throughout the game.
T-Mill: Finally, a prediction?
Zach: Purdue is really good at home. Northwestern's been good on the road but will struggle with two experienced, skilled bigs who are simply bigger than what Northwestern can possibly offer. The way Northwestern wins is if it hits a high percentage of threes and the twin towers of Swanigan and Haas both struggle. I don't think it happens. The visitors battle hard but fall. 73-68, Purdue.