It is really strange to type the following sentence, but it is also a testament to what Steve Pikiell has done in Piscataway:
A Purdue win at Rutgers would be a major boost to our NCAA Tournament profile.
It was only four years ago almost to the day when Purdue went to New Jersey and absolutely obliterated the Scarlet Knights 107-57. The Boilers didn’t even play particularly well. They were under 50% from the field and under 38% from three, but a 63-23 rebounding edge and double double-doubles from Caleb Swanigan and Jacquil Taylor made a Big Ten conference road game look like a mid-November buy game against Chicago State.
Before last season Rutgers was a dismal 9-63 in the Big Ten. Since then they have gone 12-16 and even won a few more games in the Big Ten Tournament. Pikiell has done an incredible job of turning a team that would have needed improvement to challenge some of the worst Northwestern teams of the past 40 years into one that seems very likely to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 29 years. They have even done it in a very Purdue-like way.
Rutgers Scarlett Knights
From: Piscataway, NJ
Date: Tuesday, January 28, 2020
Tip Time: 8pm
Location: Piscataway, NJ
Arena: Louis Brown Athletic Center (8,000)
Online: Fox Sports Go
Radio: Purdue Radio Network
SiriusXM Satellite: XM (Ch. 381); Internet (Ch. 968)
Live Stats: bit.ly/PurdueLiveStats
Odds: No Line Yet
2018-19 Record: 14-17, 7-13 Big Ten
2019-20 Record: 15-5, 6-3 Big Ten
Opponent Blog: On the Banks
Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 12-1
Last Rutgers Win: 81-73 in New York on 12/4/1975
Last Purdue Win: 89-54 at Purdue on 1/15/2019
NCAA Tournament History: 6 appearances, last in 1991. 1976 Final Four
Coach: Steve Pikiell (54-57 in 4th season at Rutgers, 251-232 overall)
Last week Rutgers reached the AP Top 25 for the first time since the final poll of the 1979 season. To put that into perspective, only 40 teams made the NCAA tournament that year, and Rutgers came close to a Final Four. The East Regional final was between 9 Seed Penn and 10 Seed St. John’s, and 6 Seed Rutgers lost to St. John’s in the Sweet 16.
For the past few seasons we have seen steady improvement under Pikiell, but this has been an unquestioned breakthrough season. He deserves Big Ten Coach of the Year honors hands down simply because of where Rutgers was before he got there and where it is now. They have a really nice win over Seton Hall by 20 on their resume as well as league wins over Wisconsin, Penn State, Indiana, and Minnesota. They fought really hard in narrow road losses at Illinois and Iowa.
What we are going to see tomorrow night is likely a rock fight. Purdue and Rutgers are the two best defensive teams in the conference. Purdue gives up 60 points per game and Rutgers gives up 60.7. Both teams are also at the bottom of the league offensively. The teams are nearly identical in free throw shooting percentage (among the league worst). Purdue is 13th in the league in field goal shooting while Rutgers is 5th, but Purdue is 7th from three and Rutgers is dead last. This very easily could be a “First to 50 wins” game.
I feel like in many ways Purdue and Rutgers are mirror image teams in that they play stifling defense, but can struggle offensively. Ron Harper Jr. is their leading scorer at 12.2 points per game, while Akwasi Yeboah and Geo Baker are both exactly at 10 points per game. Myles Johnson will have a tough time giving up four inches to Matt Haarms, but the overall lineup is very big with most of the regulars at 6’4” or more. That gives me some concern for how Isaiah Thompson and Eric Hunter Jr. can handle things. We could really, really use Jahaad Proctor or Aaron Wheeler having a breakout here.
As usual, Purdue will only be able to compete if it hits some shots early and gets on the defensive glass. It is going to be the same story the rest of the year. Until we get some actual offensive consistency every game is an adventure. This is a very solid Rutgers team. They take care of the ball and play excellent defense. Purdue couldn’t have a functioning offense earlier in the season at Nebraska, the worst defense in the conference by a wide margin. What is it going to do against a significantly better defense?
As usual though, this is another opportunity. I have seen what I thought were turnaround games against Virginia, Minnesota, and Michigan State, but the Boilers have not sustained success after them with the longest win streak of the year only at three games. At some point Purdue has to win away from Mackey Arena against a good team. This is a chance to break that seal. after this we’ll be halfway through the Big Ten schedule and we would all feel better getting there at 5-5 instead of 4-6. This can also unlock the door to a nice little run before going to Bloomington on February 8.