This one is for everything.
Tomorrow’s game at Northwestern is arguably one of the biggest for Purdue basketball in some time. There seems to be so much riding on it. Win, and Purdue secures its 24th Big Ten regular season championship. It will be a shared championship with the winner between Michigan and Michigan State, but still a championship as 11 of our 23 current championships are shared. There is no shame sharing it, and it makes the season an unmitigated success after we were picked by many to finish no higher than 6th even before starting 6-5. It makes up for the title we were supposed to win last year.
If we lose, however, there will be chaos. The narrative will be that we choked away a title by losing both games when we had a one game lead on everyone with two to play. We would not only hear it from the negative side of our own fanbase, but in the taunting jibes from everyone else that we blew it against the last place team in the conference.
Beating Northwestern secures this team’s legacy. It secures a championship that will hang for all time in Mackey Arena. Regardless of what happens in the NCAAs (and as mercurial as Carsen Edwards can be, anything can happen), it gives us a tangible result that was missing from last season’s 30-win campaign. I still think last year’s team was better, but securing a championship achieves a certain amount of immortality for this team.
Yes, it is for everything.
From: Evanston, IL
Date: Saturday, March 9, 2019
Tip Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
Location: Evanston, Illinois (7,039)
Arena: Welsh-Ryan Arena
Television: Big Ten Network
Radio: Purdue Radio Network
SiriusXM Satellite: XM (Ch. 381); Internet (Ch. 968)
Live Stats: bit.ly/PurdueLiveStats
Odds: No Line Yet
2017-18 Record: 14-17, 6-12 Big Ten
2018-19 Record: 13-17, 4-15
Opponent Blog: InsideNU
Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 128-46
Last Northwestern Win: 74-65 at Purdue on 3/9/2014
Last Purdue Win: 74-69 at Purdue on 12/3/2017
NCAA Tournament History: 1 appearance, reached Second Round in 2017
If it seems like forever since we have played Northwestern in basketball that’s because it has been. We played them in the second conference game last season as part of the early December two-game league stretch. Now, 38 Big Ten games later (35 regular season and 3 Big Ten Tournament game), we’re playing them again. We have played every other team in the league at least twice since playing them and we have even played the likes of Minnesota, Penn State, Michigan, and Rutgers four times in that stretch. We did not play them at all during the calendar year of 2018 and we share a conference with them. We have even played Butler twice since we last played Northwestern.
Of course, things have not gone well since the Wildcats finally made the NCAA Tournament in 2017. They lost the final seven games of last season and stumbled to a 14-17 finish after beating Michigan last season. This year a promising start was derailed by a pair of two-point losses to Indiana and Michigan during the December conference games. They have gone 0-10 in Quad 1 games and just 3-6 against Quad 2. Before beating a shorthanded Ohio State 68-50 on Wednesday night they had lost 10 straight games to fall into last place. They are already locked into the 14 seed in next week’s Big Ten Tournament regardless of what happens in this game, and they have very little to play for because their season likely ends next Wednesday or Thursday in Chicago.
Basically, if we have to finish the season with a road game we have to win to win the conference title we could not be asking for a better situation.
The strength of Northwestern lies in its frontcourt. Vic Law is their leading scorer at 15.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Dererk Pardon averages 14.1 points and 8 rebounds. A.J. Turner also averages 8.1 points per game at the other forward spot, while Ryan Taylor is their best guard at 10 points per game.
Northwestern is dead last in the conference in scoring at 66.1 points per game. During their 10 game losing streak they failed to reach 60 points seven times and didn’t go over 50 four of those times. They are the worst shooting team in the conference at 40.5% from the field and only Indiana is a worse 3-point shooting team by a tenth of a percentage point. On average we are outscoring them by 10 points per game.
Defensively, Northwestern is pretty good. They are third in the conference, giving up just 64.6 points per game. They are actually the best team in the conference at defending the three, as teams are shooting 29.2% against them. Purdue, meanwhile, has made the most threes in the conference by a wide margin, so it is the best three-point shooting team against the best 3-point defense in the conference.
Pardon had 20 points and 13 rebounds against Ohio State on Wednesday without Wesson inside while Law and Turner each had 10. The Buckeyes shot a dismal 26% and just 15% from three. Northwestern hit only five threes, but it was enough because the Buckeyes were really, really bad.
That tells me this game will be decided inside, where Matt Haarms and Trevion Williams need to be significantly better than they were at Minnesota. Carsen also needs to get back to attacking the basket and finishing at the rim. The Wildcats are only 7th overall in regular FG% defense, so they can be attacked. We also have a major size advantage with Haarms and Williams inside.
I will be blunt: If we can’t beat this team it is a disaster and we deserve to be mocked. Yes, they just thumped Ohio State by 18, but the Buckeyes are a shell of themselves without Kaleb Wesson as we saw last Saturday. A little more than a week ago Northwestern barely scored 50 points at home against Minnesota and they recently scored 50 and 49 in road losses to Nebraska and Ohio State. They are just 3-6 at home in conference play and we have some major advantages inside. This is even more true if we make a dedicated effort to pound Haarms and Williams inside and get Law and Pardon in foul trouble.
On paper, there is not much that scares me about Northwestern, which is probably why I am scared. I have been a Purdue fan a long time and I know it is never easy for us. Carsen’s game on Tuesday was a disaster for us and we had a number of other things go against us, causing a loss. What if that happens again? We can’t have Carsen shoot us out of the game. We can’t go 50% as a team from the free throw line. We can’t send them to the line twice as many times as we get there. We can’t let a random guy like Matz Stockman have the game of his life against us (Barret Benson, I am looking at you).
At around 4:30 tomorrow afternoon Purdue will either be celebrating a title or mourning that we let one slip away. The result depends on whether we take care of business or lose a game we have no real business losing.