Thursday, January 31, 2008

Just win, baby

Last night was the definition of winning ugly. Fortunately for us it still counts in the standings just as much as the thing of beauty delivered a week prior in State College. Iowa is one of those teams that plays so hard defensively they make you win ugly. Personally, I am glad we are done with them at least until the Big Ten Tournament. Until proven otherwise I am going to going to vote them as the best of the bottom five teams in the lead because they are fearless. They know they aren't the most talented team, but because of that they are going to come after you for 40 minutes. Doing so, especially on defense, gives them a chance to win each and every night.

Positives from the Iowa game:

Surviving the letdown game – Clearly we struggled to put the Hawkeyes away in this one. Whether that came as a letdown from Saturday's big win or Iowa just scrapped their way to a near win I don't know. I do know it is a critical lesson that we had a subpar effort against a supposedly inferior opponent and we still walked away with the W. As has become normal for us, we didn't have one guy head and shoulders above everyone else, but all chipped in for the win. We shot better than we did against Wisconsin, but it's not like we set the nets on fire either. Iowa turned this one into a slugfest, but we were still able to walk out of it.

Coaching – Matt Painter outcoached Todd Lickliter in the final five seconds. It was also likely a battle for Big Ten Coach of the Year honors. I cannot figure out why Iowa didn't pressure the final in-bounds pass, allowing Grant to get the ball at mid-court with a running start. First of all, we were able to move the ball half the distance we needed to without any time going off the clock. Second, Grant was traveling full-speed to where he needed to go and had his man beat. If anything we almost scored too early! Some people will howl that Grant wasn't fouled on the play and that the Iowa defender got all ball, but the picture above, found by JohnPurdue on the Purdue boards, shows otherwise. Third, Painter's decision to have Grant miss the second free throw was genius. At that point you're asking Iowa to throw in a shot from 85 feet away. If they do that, then great. I don't mind getting beat by a shot like that because it would be one of the greatest shots in college basketball history. Making the free throw allows them to have the same chance we had in advancing the ball to half court without taking time off the clock. A good pass (Christian Laettner, anyone?) gets them an even better shot.

Even calls – Essentially, there were two crap calls in the final seconds, but they evened each other out. I agree that there was goaltending against Kelly by Hummel, but there was no foul on the play. Conversely, if they are going to call the foul on Freeman then they probably should have called a foul on Hummel at the end of the Wisconsin game. At least they were consistent in calling fouls both ways at the end of the game, though Freeman's foul was more of a foul than Martin's.

Turnovers – I cover some high school games, with bad teams playing, and they don't have 22 turnovers a game. Chris Kramer is becoming a grade-A level thief, though I hope he can get his legs back under him because on his dunk he looked like he just barely made it. Since I work with many Iowa fans right now, they were going on this morning about how you can't give a team 10 extra possessions in a close game like that. Winning the turnover battle will be critical this Saturday in Champaign.

Negatives from the Iowa game:

Inside play – Rebounding is normally decided by effort and seeing who wants it more. Since Iowa brought more intensity last night it is only natural that they won the rebounding battle. We only got three total rebounds from Calasan and Johnson, and all of those came from Calasan. For as much promise as Johnson showed in the Wisconsin game he certainly regressed against a smaller Iowa team that I thought he would be able to have a breakout game against at home. Rebounding numbers may have been down simply because of so many turnovers by Iowa, but only 20 for the game a team? Scoring was even more down, as we got almost nothing in the paint. We're going to have to improve our shooting percentage and rebounding if we're going to stay as hot as we have been.

Scoring – Thank goodness for Scott Martin, because the starters couldn't get anything going last night. A ton of credit needs to be given to the Iowa defense last night, but we could not get anything going for consistent stretches. Once again we had a big drought in the first half where we easily could have pulled away early. We have got to be able to put teams like this away at home. We also must start shooting better and take more high percentage shots.

Dictating tempo at home – I am not sure why we continue to struggle with this, but we let Iowa control the pace of play last night. I like our versatility in that we can force the issue if we want to. Even our bigs run the floor well. Last night it seemed like we relied on the 3-pointer way too much because we weren't even trying to go inside. That played right into Iowa's hands! A win is a win though, and I will take it without too much complaint.

Up next:

I'll be honest and say that I am a little fearful of the Illinois game this Saturday. They played very well at Michigan State last night and had the Spartans on the ropes before having a dismal second half. I've been saying all along they have enough raw talent to be dangerous to someone, and the right mix of veterans could cause problems in Champaign. Still, they have set the tone of struggling in the second half of games and have had just about the worst closing kick in the conference. We, in turn, have had the best closing kick in the conference. We seem to get better as the game goes on. If anything, these last two games have shown we now know how to close out close ones.

I view this game as being the clincher. It is our most difficult road game remaining against the bottom five of the league, with Michigan second and Northwestern third. A win on Saturday should mean at least a 4-1 record on the road against the bottom five, and probably 5-0. It also sets the stage for a clean 10-0 sweep against said bottom five, as we're not losing at home to Penn State or Northwestern. Since we already own a couple of other wins outside of those 10 games it would make us, at worst, a 21 win club with 12 conference victories. By my math there is no way we'd be kept out of the tournament then.

We must, therefore, head to Champaign with the attitude that it will lock up an NCAA berth. Of course, we must take that attitude with every game remaining as well. Pending tonight's Wisconsin-Indiana outcome we could go there in first place in the Big Ten, something that hasn't happened this late in the season in a very long time. We then have a relatively easy home game against Penn State, where we can advance to 9-1 before a critical four game stretch that will decide our Big Ten title fate. It's a big if, but if we can come out of the Indiana game on February 19th with a 12-2 or even 11-3 conference record we will be have chance to win the title. We would also be playing for a seed instead of a bid at that point. That stretch begins Saturday in Champaign.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Iowa, Round 3

Tomorrow night is the next step. I like to think that great teams are the ones that win games after they have notched a big victory. Would last season's Colts team been as good if they had blown all the momentum from the New England win and lost the Super Bowl to the Grossman-led Bears? What about all the teams that pull first-round upsets in the NCAA tournament only to fizzle in the next round? That is where we stand going into tomorrow night's game with Iowa. Right now the program has a ton of momentum, but we cannot afford to drop a home game to a team we have already beaten on the road. This is our first of four straight games against teams we have already beaten. It is especially difficult to beat a team twice, but it is a little easier when that first victory comes on the other team's home floor.

I would not be surprised if there is a bit of a letdown tomorrow night. Iowa is a team that may not be the most talented in the world, but coach Lickliter has them playing hard every game. Anytime you do that you give your team a chance to win. I am calling this round three because we have already secured Black and Gold conference bragging rites by winning the football game and first basketball game. Tomorrow night we can go for the sweep and put a dangerous team like Iowa behind us for the year, at least until the Big Ten Tournament.

Since we last saw Iowa:

The Hawkeyes have only played three games since we last met, but they were able to win two of those three including a road game at Michigan. The lone loss came at Indiana by 22 points, which was a step back after Iowa challenged the Hoosiers to start the Big Ten season. It's also a good sign if it is an indicator of how Iowa will play a team the second time around. Most recently Iowa took out Penn State by 15 in Iowa City on Saturday in Iowa City. While Iowa will probably need to win the Big Ten Tournament to get to the NCAA's, the NIT is still a possibility. Currently Iowa is 10-11 overall, and with two games against Northwestern, a home dates against Michigan and Illinois, and a return trip to Penn State the Hawkeyes could be looking at a .500 season in conference play with just one more upset.

Leading scorer Tony Freeman had his best game of the season against Michigan with a 28 point effort, but he only had five against Penn State. Number two man Josh Johnson's production has also fallen off, but he did get back into double figures against the Nittany Lions. Cyrus Tate had a very good game with 21 points against Michigan, and Jake Kelly has become more of a threat to score. Since Kelly is from Carmel this will be a homecoming game of sorts.

Defense is still the MO for Iowa, as they rank number 2 in defensive average at 58 points per game only behind Wisconsin, but they still rate comfortably last in scoring at 57.4 points per game. Currently they are scoring an average of seven points fewer per game than last place Northwestern, who is ranked 10th in scoring conference-wise. It will once again be critical to score early and often, as this is a team that can be beaten with just 60 points. It's not like that is an automatic benchmark for us (we have been over 60 in four of our five losses), but Iowa has given up 60 or more in 8 of their 11 losses.

Game keys:

Since our win over Iowa was just two weeks ago many of the keys remain the same. It is important for us not to suffer a letdown after the Wisconsin win, because Iowa is just dangerous enough to knock us off. Losing a home game to them would be a serious blow, especially considering we already own a road victory. As far as I am concerned they can win as many road games as they want after Wednesday.

Tomorrow night we must find the hot scorer, as it was Keaton Grant the first time around. Moore could be a candidate with his performance against Wisconsin, as could Hummel with the way he finished the Wisconsin game. Kramer took a few more shots against the Badgers as well, and I think he is due for a big game. We have to contain both Freeman and Johnson as they are the only two consistent offensive weapons for the Hawks. I would keep an eye on Tate as well.

Some of the things I cited as areas to work on from the first Iowa game were scoring lulls, our inside play, and overall field goal shooting. Right now the field goal shooting is my biggest concern, as we aren't shooting particularly well from the field, but we're somehow getting it done night in and night out. We were under 40% at Iowa and under 40% against Wisconsin. We can't afford to have this trend for long before we get burnt. The inside play was much better against a bigger, more experienced Wisconsin team and I expect Calasan and Johnson to step up and have another learning game tomorrow night.

Honestly I have a hard time seeing us losing this game if we shoot better than 45% from the field and score more than 60 points. Once again, we just need to outscore a team like this. We gave up 62 in Iowa City, but this time the Hawkeyes won't have the benefit of the home crowd. It should be interesting to see how our home crowd responds to the first mid-week conference game of the season. Through an incredible fluke in scheduling we have had four Saturday home games in the first seven conference games and each road game has been on a weeknight. That trend reverses this week, as we don't have another Saturday home game until Northwestern at the end of the year. Since the last three home games have been "event" games it will be interesting to see how the crowd treats this "regular" game. I think we will be just fine as long as we continue to take each game as it comes and don't suffer any mental lapses. Purdue 66, Iowa 56

A final note on Iowa:

I wasn't going to say anything, but yesterday this blog was called out by the Iowa blog on the Big Ten bloggers' network, Black Heart Gold Pants. I've had nothing but respect for Adam and the crew over there, as they produce one of the funniest (if not angrily-charged) blogs on the network. I have even taken the time to nominate them for the CFB Blogger awards under the Trev Alberts Quits To Do Construction Award. I had never even heard of Hey Jenny Slater until yesterday, but I admit there are similarities between yesterday's power rankings and a post on Jenny Slater made more than two years ago. A few things:

  1. The idea of comparing college teams to shows/bands/characters/political figures/farm animals is not new. I'm also not the only one to do it on a weekly basis as evidenced by Gopher Nation and Black Heart Gold Pants themselves.
  2. The post on Jenny Slater is similar, but it's for football and is not a ranking, just a comparison. I can't sit here and search the entire internet any time I want to do a comparison on anything just because someone might have done something similar on a different topic more than two years ago. I barely have time to write as much as I do.
  3. Again, it's a similar post, but completely different comparisons, ideas, words, and in some cases characters. This Hey Jenny Slater, judging by the number of comments, is obviously much more popular then my humble labor of love that is Off the Tracks, and it is indeed a very well thought out article. Still, before yesterday I had never heard of it, but before yesterday I also had never knew as much as I do now about the Presidential Line of Succession after the State of the Union Address, and I had a four on the AP Government test in High school. This just proves I don't know everything, and I am glad for it.
  4. If proper credit needs to be given to Hey Jenny Slater then consider it given. Sorry I didn't know you existed.
  5. I still respect Black Heart Gold Pants and the crew over there for what they do. It's a great blog and one of the highlights of the network. If they have a serious problem with me then, well, they don't have to read. I'll continue to read them and promote them, because their Iowa Caucus edition of the Power Rankings is far funnier than anything I have written.

So that takes care of that and I am considering the matter closed. Maybe it is just a little bitterness that we transferred the BGCNOSM* to them this football season. If they want to pursue anything further I will simply let my team do the talking on the court tomorrow night.

* -- Black and Gold Curse of No Ohio State or Michigan on the football schedule. When a team wears black and gold and has this happen they do not have a good season, as evidenced by 2005 and 2006 Purdue Boilermaker football.

** -- As evidenced here, Black Heart Gold Pants was indeed joking. Special thanks to Boiled Sports for pointing this out to me. I guess I'll hop on board the retard train for overreacting to this.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Welcome to the Mountain (with Power Rankings)

I admit that in my joy Saturday afternoon there was a certain amount of jealousy. During my time at Purdue I feel I endured both the highs and lows of the basketball program. As a freshman I was witness to the women’s team winning a national title. As a sophomore I saw the men’s team come within a game of the final four that was played right down the road in Indianapolis. As a junior the women’s team once again took center stage as they fell a basket short of their second national title in three years. By the time I was a senior and got the good seats at Mackey (there was no general admission back then) the men’s program had fallen to the point of their first losing season in 20 years. I thought that was bad, watching John Allison (the only 6’11” guy I could outrebound) flail away in the paint. It would, of course get worse.

Saturday, however, announced a return, and I must say I was jealous of the students who stormed the floor at Mackey Arena. I never got to do that. Sure, it was fun to do it for football three times during the magical Rose Bowl year of 2000, but since basketball is my first love I always wanted to do that, but never had the chance.

Saying that this victory marked a return to the mountaintop is not right because it implies we can go no higher. I prefer, instead, to call it a return to the mountain. We announced that we are back as a program and ready to contend for the conference championship. We must now climb this mountain that we are back on, as there are three other teams out there that would certainly be glad to throw us off.

Positives from the Wisconsin game:

“Big Shot” Robbie Hummel – No shot was more critical than his 3-pointer that put us up 55-50. It came right as Wisconsin was making a run and Butch was beginning to assert himself. The ESPN announcers were beginning their love fest for Wisconsin and stating that this would be where the young Boilers would fall apart to the superior team. Robbie’s triple made me jump of my couch and tell the announcer that it was a “shut them up” basket. Robbie only finished with 10 points, but he also had seven boards, five dimes, and one huge blocked shot (playing with four fouls) on the final play. Five of his points were in our final eight as he also hit the clinching free throws. I will admit he probably fouled the guy, but the refs had for the most part swallowed their whistles all day and they weren’t going to call anything short of homicide then.

E’Twaun Moore – E’Twaun showed range with a couple of big 3’s and a soft touch with his runners in the lane. He hit nearly every big shot he took and showed that he is developing into a solid scoring threat. Right now he is one of our few guys that can score off the dribble and create his own shot. He will also get better as he gets used to life in the Big Ten. I am still waiting for a game where he simply goes off on a team, and since he did it against Eric Gordon in last year’s state finals I am hoping he saves it for our trip to Bloomington. Saturday was just a flash of that.

JuJuan Johnson – I was very impressed with the big man’s play on Saturday as he held his own with the much more experienced Butch. He had one thunder dunk and was in position for at least two more had we been able to get him the ball. I would like to see him rebound more, but lay off ont he threes I know they are going to give it to you, but that’s not really your game, JuJuan. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

The crowd – On TV it came off as the best crowd in a long time and the Paint Crew was certainly on their game. My senior year, when it was the Gene Pool (and I still have my shirt!), the student section barely filled its allotment in the lower bowl next to the Boiler Brass. It was a joy to see a completely black clad student section from floor to ceiling for a quarter of the arena. They were on too, as I especially like the “Carl’s better” chant toward Marcus Landry.

Nemanja Calasan – Just a small point here to say that I love his fearlessness to grind in the paint and his emotion. His 3-pointer was a big one in the second half and he needs to stay in the starting lineup. He gives us a post presence and a workman-like attitude we need against teams like Wisconsin.

What needs to improve:

Fouls – We played a most dangerous game against the Badgers as many of our big guns (especially Moore and Hummel) were on the floor in foul trouble throughout the second half. It seemed the refs were calling more ticky-tack fouls against us than Wisconsin, but I also saw several instances where we were reaching can could have been called for more fouls so it evened things out. On a positive note JuJuan didn’t commit a single foul.

Defending Brian Butch – Before this game we had done a good job on Butch throughout his career, but he began to take the game over in the second half. Fortunately we were able to keep him off the offensive glass and out of the final play, but I think that is more Bo Ryan’s fault. He had the hot hand at the time and I don’t understand why they didn’t go to him down two. He had already hit two three’s, so they could go to him for the win. He was also causing all kinds of problems with his size so why not go to him for the tie? We dodged a bullet when he didn’t touch the ball at the end.

Shot selection – We may have relied a little too much on the 3-pointer, but we hit enough. It is fine for Grant, Moore, and even Calasan to shoot threes win open, but did we really need JuJuan shooting from long range? I understand that Wisconsin leads the league in defensive field goal percentage, but we bailed them out by rushing dumb shots too many times. Still, we didn’t get killed on the glass against a bigger team, and we did win the game.

Up next:

As good as this win was we cannot rest on it. There is still plenty of work to do just to make the NCAA’s (which is certainly a strong probability at this point), let alone compete for the conference title. Winning the Big Ten though is a possibility, and it can happen if we simply hold serve at home (Getting another good win over Michigan State in the process), winning games we should win against Illinois, Michigan, and Northwestern on the road, and grabbing at least one of the Ohio State-Indiana-Wisconsin trio on the road. If we do that we’ll finish 15-3 in the conference, and that could be good enough for a share of the crown. At the very least we now control our own destiny in regards to the championship, but there is a lot of basketball still to be played. To have any hope we have to win these next three games (Iowa, at Illinois, Penn State) against teams we have already proven we can beat.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Simpsons-style!

I am a huge fan of the Simpsons, as I own all 10 seasons currently on DVD and got the movie for Christmas. This week’s Power Rankings theme features the villains of the Simpsons, with one assigned to each team in the league.

1. (1) Indiana (17-2, 6-0) – Mr. Burns – The Hoosiers represent the ultimate evil in big Ten basketball for Purdue fans, just like Mr. Burns represents the ultimate evil in Springfield. Kelvin Sampson will also do anything to get an edge in this conference, such as stealing players (Eric Gordon) much like Mr. Burns tried to steal candy from Maggie. Also, Indiana has had a self-satisfied grin since signing Gordon that was taken back a bit by UConn in Assembly Hall this weekend. Excellent!

2. (4) Purdue (15-5, 6-1) – Hank Scorpio – My favorite Simpson villain goes to my favorite team as the Boilers just seized the East Coast with Saturday’s landmark win over Wisconsin. We may not be ready to be given the ownership of the Dallas Cowboys quite yet (as that would be like winning the Big Ten), but owning the Denver Broncos (competing for a title) is still pretty good. Of course, according to some readers, I just don’t know football.

3. (3) Michigan State (18-2, 6-1) – Sideshow Bob – Sideshow Bob is one of the longest running recurring villains in the show’s history, just like how the Spartans are in competition for the conference title every year. Many times though they are foiled by something unexpected (such as losing at Iowa) as how Sideshow Bob is foiled in his episode each season. I guess like sober Barney, the good Sideshow Bob (from the Sideshow Cecil episode) is an unexplained thing of the past.

4. (2) Wisconsin (16-3, 6-1) – Fat Tony – I guess you can call Fat Tony a villain in the show, but he is a very likeable villain. That is why I compare them to Wisconsin because they are a likable opponent in the conference. They work hard, keep their players and coaches within the family (like Fat Tony) and they are legitimate. Now if they can just beat Indiana it would be like Fat Tony’s role in one of my favorite episodes: Homer vs. the 18th Amendment.

5. (6) Ohio State (14-6, 5-2) – Snake – Just like Snake is always getting into trouble, everyone suspects the entire Ohio State athletic department, from football on down to the chess team, is cheating. Just like Snake, they never get caught though. Personally, I think Ohio State is no worse than a number of other programs, and they were able to get back on their feet this week with a nice pair of wins over Illinois and Wisconsin.

6. (5) Minnesota (12-6, 2-4) – Kang and Kodos – Kang and Kodos have showed a lot of ambition in being the rulers of Rigel 7, but they have had difficulty in conquering earth. The same is true for Minnesota, as they did well outside the conference but have struggled since conference play started. Right now they appear to be an NIT team because they have blown a lot of good chances for a signature win, but if they can get one on the road it could help even more.

7. (7) Iowa (10-11, 3-5) – Ned Flanders as the Devil – Iowa is a dangerous team because of how hard they play, but they are still very unassuming because no one thinks they are a danger. The same is true for Ned Flanders, as in one of the early Treehouse of Horror Episodes it was revealed he was the Devil. This team scares me and they could catch us on Wednesday night in Mackey if we’re not careful.

8. (9) Illinois (10-11, 2-6) – Sideshow Cecil – Illinois simply has too much talent to be this bad. Cecil, in his two episodes, had too much talent to be Krusty’s sidekick and it made him very bitter. There’s also enough talent there that Illinois is going to knock off a team from the top four in the conference, so I hope it is not us this coming Saturday in Champaign. When they do it will be like Cecil blowing up the Springfield Dam.

9. (10) Michigan (5-15, 1-7) – Nelson Muntz – Michigan seems like a team that will beat up on Northwestern and Penn State to rule the bottom three, but won’t be a threat to the conference as a hole unless they give another team a bloody nose with a surprise in Ann Arbor. Nelson is the same way, in that he beats up on those smaller, but is never a threat to Springfield as a whole. We could be that team during the last game of the season if we’re not careful.

10. (8) Penn State (10-9, 2-5) – Comic Book Guy – Penn State has a fatal flaw now in losing Geary Claxton, just like how Comic Book Guy has a fatal flaw in being too lazy to do anything other than criticize patrons of the Android’s Dungeon. The real question for the Nittany Lions is can they confuse their opponents by being fluent in Klingon?

11. (11) Northwestern (6-11, 0-7) – Ralph Wiggum – Ralph really isn’t a villain per se, but Northwestern, right now, isn’t really a Big Ten basketball team. I still like Kevin Coble, but losing by 33 to an Illinois team that has struggled all year is a Ralph-like performance.

Friday, January 25, 2008

At my signal, unleash hell

It has been a long, long time since I have been this excited about a Purdue basketball game. Why is it that these moments for the signature sports at Purdue seem to come in home games on national television against Wisconsin? I don't think there is quite as much at stake tomorrow as there was for the football team on that fateful day in October of 2004. Back then it was a make-or-break game for the football team and things fell apart after the loss. A loss here would be far from crippling and merely signal that the Boilers are still about a year away from truly contending. A win, however, would send a signal that we are ready to compete right now.

It is a testament to how far we have come since the Wofford game that Wisconsin views this game as their first real test in the conference. Back when the conference season first started many looked at this game as a stepping stone for the Badgers on their way to an undefeated matchup against Indiana next week. We now stand in the way of that game. The atmosphere at Mackey Arena tomorrow is going to be the best it has been in years. Therefore, I am making a challenge today: If you are one of the privileged 14,123 fans in attendance tomorrow you are not allowed to sit down at all. If you are a student you much show up with 3-4 friends and be prepared to scream for two solid hours. Wisconsin has one of the more difficult venues in the league, therefore we must return the favor and not let them breathe from the moment they come out of the tunnel for warm-ups.

Wisconsin so far:

For as much as I have been going on about making Mackey Arena as loud as possible, I don't think it will rattle Wisconsin. The Badgers come into this game at 16-2 and have already played at Duke and Texas. The Texas win is the most impressive to date, as Wisconsin showed a lot of poise late in the game to grab a nice road win at the buzzer. Considering that Texas owns a win over UCLA this year, it puts the Wisconsin loss in perspective. Michigan State and Missouri also beat Texas though, and we were able to compete with both of them away from Mackey.

The only two losses came in a blowout at Duke during the ACC/Big Ten challenge and at home to an up and down, but talented, Marquette team. Aside from those two games and the obvious Texas win Wisconsin hasn't really played anyone. They have gotten to 6-0 in the Big Ten by playing the bottom five of Michigan (twice), Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, and Penn State. Outside the conference we only share one common opponent: Wofford. Wisconsin crushed the Terriers 70-43 in Madison on December 3rd. The rest of the non-conference schedule was built on the backs of blowouts, with only Georgia and Colorado being major opponents.

Who is dangerous for the Badgers:

In the recent past Wisconsin has been a team that has relied on defensive intensity to win games in good old-fashioned Big Ten slugfests. This season, however, Wisconsin has been able to score plenty as they are averaging nearly 71 points per game while holding opponents to a Big Ten best 54.4 points per game. Their defensive average is more than four points better than the #2 team in the conference (Iowa). The only two times Wisconsin has surrendered more than 66 points in a game came in both losses to Duke and Marquette, in which they gave up 82 and 81 respectively. Just three other teams (Texas, Illinois, and Michigan) have even cracked 60 against them.

Wisconsin is also extremely balanced in scoring, but not quite as much as us. Three players (Sophomore Trevon Hughes, Senior Brian Butch, and Junior Marcus Landry) are averaging in double figures with Senior Michael Flowers just outside of double figures at 9.4 per game. They are extremely experience, especially Butch who seems to be in his 12th season for Wisconsin. You would think that Butch would have had great games against us over the past few years, but we have been able to keep him out of double figures each time we have faced him. Landry has also been historically kept in check by us, and Hughes did not play in last season's game. Butch is the team's best rebounder, and ranks 6th in the conference overall.

What not to fear from Wisconsin:

Wisconsin is one of those teams that is very fundamentally sound and will not beat themselves. They are one of the better shooting teams in the league, but with their size that is natural because they are able to take a lot of high percentage shots. They are equal to us in turnovers and even lead the league in fewest fouls per game. Essentially we're not going to get any help from turnovers, they aren't going to foul us and out us on the line, and they are going to play defense right in our shirts. What do they do wrong?

In just looking at the defensive statistics for Wisconsin the numbers are eye-popping. Only Ohio State is making teams shoot worse from the field. Their size inside with Butch, Jon Leuer, and Greg Stiemsma could create match-up problems on both ends as all three are over 6-10 and play significant minutes. Hughes is incredibly saavy as both a scorer and a distributer. The only game that he missed was the win over Texas, and he also leads the team in steals.

General Outlook:

I have had a generally pessimistic, wait and see attitude towards this team so far this year. Since I started writing on basketball I have repeatedly stated that the goal for this season should be to just make the tournament, learn along the way, and compete for a championship next year. We appear to be solidly on that track, so what is wrong with going for it early in terms of competing for the Big Ten? Teams are given so few opportunities to compete for championships, therefore, we must take advantage of this one.

Wisconsin is too disciplined and too well coached to be looking ahead to next week's game against Indiana. I am encouraged that Michigan was able to give them quite a game earlier this week in the Kohl Center, but you can be sure we have their full attention. We will not face a better defensive team this season, but we showed on Wednesday night that we can play a little defense of our own. They will not beat themselves, so any victory earned will be because we came out and outplayed them.

A major key will be our ability to share the ball, find the hot hand, and score early. Wisconsin has struggled against the teams on their schedule that can score with some consistency, and if we have another dry spell like we did against Illinois, Iowa, or FIU we will be in serious trouble. We must overcome them with balance and team play, because that is what they want to do with us. As much as the crowd will be in it I don't expect them to be rattled, but Duke gave us a blueprint on how to beat them by jumping on them early. Of course, several great teams have gone to Duke and melted in the face of the Crazies.

I really, really want us to get this game and I feel like we have the ability to go out there and stun them, but we're long overdue for a lapse in play and have, "a case of the freshmans." I also don't like that we have started games slowly in the Big Ten, with the last game at Penn State more of an exception than a rule. I am going to go with Wisconsin in this one because I don't think we're quite ready, but this team has surprised me before. Wisconsin 62, Purdue 55.

If we lose though, I dare Matt Painter to challenge Bo Ryan in a Pants off/Dance off

Thursday, January 24, 2008

You’re excited? Feel these nipples!

First off I wanted to say thank you to former Boilermaker Mike Alstott, who retired from the Bucs today after 12 seasons. I knew this was probably coming after he started the season on injured reserve, but I still salute Purdue's all-time leading rusher as he finishes a long and distinguished career. Long-time Purdue fans view Mike as one of the few bright spots of the Jim Colletto coaching era, and I still maintain that if we had had at least a marginally competent head coach we would have gone to at least one bowl game in his career. Mike played at a time when opposing teams knew he was our only true offensive weapon, yet he still was able to dominate games.

Inevitably Kory Sheets will pass his career touchdown scoring mark in the 2008 season, but many of the overall rushing records will still stand. You had to watch Mike play at Purdue to truly appreciate just how good he was, as he almost single-handed carried us to a bowl game as a junior in 1994. That year coach Colletto squandered a 4-1 start into a 4-5-2 finish simply because of his, "a tie is as good as a win in the Big Ten," philosophy against Wisconsin and Iowa. Mike saved his best work for last, as his Friday after Thanksgiving performance at Indiana in 1995 was one of the most dominating performances in Purdue football history. Purdue only finished 4-6-1 that season, but nearly defeated Notre Dame, Penn State, and Michigan in what would have then been a landmark year. I always wonder how good our offense would have been the past few years with him in the backfield.

Mike, you were the epitome of what it is to be a Boilermaker, and you will be missed. Thank you.

Now we move on to last night's basketball action, and I must say I was very impressed by Purdue's play. I knew Penn State would suffer from the loss of Geary Claxton, but their performance on Sunday at Indiana had me leery of a potential trap game on the road. What transpired was a total shock, as I feel Purdue turned in perhaps its most complete performance in a road game since at least the 2000 season when we nearly ended up in the Final Four. The only other game I can think of where we have been so shockingly dominant away from home recently was the 2003 NCAA Tournament game against LSU. Absolutely no one was picking us in that game and many were arguing whether we should even be in the tournament at 18-10. Sports Illustrated even had the gall to predict that LSU would reach the elite 8. We then proceeded to come out and kick them up and down the floor for an easy 80-56 win.

I kept track of the game last night on gametracker then watched the highlights this morning on the web. Many will say that it was just Penn State, but the first half was certainly one of the best halves of basketball Purdue has put on in quite some time. Consider the following firsts from last night's game:

First back-to-back road wins since 2000-01 season

First 20-point or more road win since 2000 (at Iowa 84-58)

Best defensive effort in a game since the 1998-99 season (54-42 win over Minnesota in West Lafayette)

Best defensive effort on the road since at least 1996-97 (I can't find records back further than that.)

Let's please keep in mind that before this game we had exactly three true road wins since the beginning of the 2004-05 season total. It didn't matter if we were playing Duke in Cameron Indoor or Sisters of the Poor and Blind on a playground, we simply could not win away from Mackey Arena. Often the games weren't even close to teams we probably could have handled at home. Last night the Toddler Boilers answered those fears with an emphatic win that has been a long time coming. The stage is now set for an even bigger win this Saturday, but I will get into that later.

Positives from the Penn State game:

The Defense – I am giving this area as many positives as is humanly possible. We were smothering, we didn't allow Penn State to get anything going, and we used stellar defense to generate points in transition. Since it had been nine years since the last time we had such a dominating defensive effort it is pretty obvious that such a performance makes it very difficult to lose a game. Even better was the fact that we had nine blocked shots and eight steals. I expected to dominate the paint, but nine blocked shots from seven different players? Are you kidding me? Please tell me the football team was watching and learned you can win games by preventing the other team from scoring.

Sharing the ball – This truly was a total team win, and that is what has me so excited for the future. Only Terrance Crump will be gone from this lineup next season, and he had 0 points and four assists in 22 minutes last night. These guys are not only very talented individually, but they are growing together so much they play as a single unit on the floor no matter who is in the lineup. On 25 field goals last night we had 18 assists from six different guys. Three guys reached double figures and once again we had a different leading scorer. I expected great teamwork between Hummel and Martin since they played together in high school. You can throw Moore into that group from AAU as well. The fact they have meshed so well with everyone else is just an added bonus.

Robbie Hummel – This was the best game of his very young career so far. 15 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, and 3 of 5 from 3-point land is a great night from a senior, but from a true freshman? I am beginning to wonder if Robbie even likes playing Mackey because his best games have come away from home. It's been asked before, but how different would things have been had he not been sick against Michigan State? I love this kid's versatility.

3-point shooting – This continues to be a surprising weapon for us, but since the nature of our motion offense is to take only good shots who can blame us for taking the 3-pointer if it there. Right now we are knocking it down with regularity, and most importantly they are not always coming from the same player. We hit 11 triples in this game for 33 points, so if we can continue to do that and hold other teams under 50 points I certainaly like our chances of getting the rest of our points from inside the arc. Six different guys hit triples for us as well.

E'Twaun Moore – Moore is starting to come along nicely and is developing into a great complimentary scorer. His 11 points were big last night, but his five assists were even bigger. He only had one turnover as well. All told it was a very nice all-around game and you can feel him start to adjust to Big Ten basketball.

Keaton Grant – Keaton finally cooled off, but it still wasn't a terrible game for the reigning Big Ten player of the week. Keaton's numbers were down from his last two games, but I like that he didn't sulk and instead was more concerned with getting everyone else involved. The key to this team's future success is going to be unselfish play and learning to go with whoever is the hot hand on that given night. I mentioned this in yesterday's preview and last night we exhibited this characteristic very well.

Chris Reid, Bobby Riddell, and Chad Sutor – I know they are 20/20 guys at the moment, but I love that they were able to get in the game and get 4-5 good minutes at the end. You never know if we're going to need one of these guys down the line, and any game time is better than practice. It would have been nice to get a bucket or two out of them, but I'll take the PT because it means things are going very well or very poorly.

Things to work on:

I almost want to put this game in the category of the elusive perfect game. Finally we were able to go out and finish off a Big Ten team on the road early before their crowd could even get into it. Even the foul discrepancy didn't cause problems as Penn State shot less than 50% from the line. What else did we really do wrong? Cornley and Battle were essentially non-factors and we won every major statistical category by a sound margin.

Up next:

Mackey Arena will have the most electric atmosphere in perhaps more than a decade on Saturday. Sadly I was outbid at the last minute on Ebay for some tickets this afternoon that were less than face value or I would be one of the delirious 14,123 fans there on Saturday. Wisconsin will be the biggest game the program has played in since the Wisconsin game in 2000 during the NCAA Tournament. A win would announce to everyone else that we are ready to compete for a conference championship right now. Barring a collapse I think we will be in the NCAA Tournament, as we only need to win six of the last 12 games by my count to get to 20 wins overall and 11 in the conference. We've proved we can play on the road, so we'll get a couple more road wins along the way. Now it is time to defend the home turf. Beating Wisconsin would also make an undefeated Big Ten season at home a real possibility. If you had told me before the year started we would lose only one game at home and it would be Wofford I would have taken it since conference games are much more important.

Let's make Mackey a fearful place on Saturday for the Badgers. I know I will be making my couch fearful.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

On the road with the Boilers

In theory tonight's game with Penn State should be an easy one. The Nittany Lions have lost their best player, and one of the best in the Big Ten, for the season with a knee injury and have struggled since he went down. They have lost three straight, two of them since Geary Claxton's injury. Even with Claxton they had lost a couple of questionable games that had put them on the bubble, but they were still a formidable team that many expected to challenge for an NCAA bid. In the mean time we have been playing very good basketball of late. As Penn State has moved back we have moved up to the point some are saying we could challenge for the conference title already.

In theory, however, Communism works. If there is one thing I have learned from watching Big Ten basketball it is that any team can beat another while defending their home court. All it takes is the road team coming in and taking the home team for granted. We learned this lesson last season in surprising road losses at Indiana State, Minnesota, and Iowa. I know the Sycamores aren't in the Big Ten, but it was still a game where we came in a little too confident and quite simply got our asses handed to us. For a more recent example one needs only to look at the Iowa-Michigan State game from a few weeks ago. You cannot take any road venue for granted in this league, even Northwestern. We must remember this tonight or the Nittany Lions, shorthanded as they may be, will beat us and undo all of the good we have accomplished in the past few weeks.

Penn State so far:

As mentioned in the opener, Penn State had its share of struggles before Claxton got injured. They were invited to play in the Old Spice Classic in Florida early in the season and promptly lost all three games to South Carolina, Rider, and Central Florida. Each loss was by at least 7 points, so they were barely competitive in finishing 8th in the eight team tournament. After dropping a game at St. Joseph's Penn State did have a modest seven game winning streak before the Claxton injury. That streak included two wins to start Big Ten play over Northwestern and Illinois on the road.

The best win the Nittany Lions have probably came back in December against Virginia Tech. The Hokies are 11-7 right now and part of the large bubble pool over in the ACC. They also have a nice win over Seton Hall who sits at 12-6 and is on the Big East bubble. The rest of Penn State's wins have come against lower division teams and the bottom of the Big Ten. Honestly, the Nittany Lions would have been in a much better position with a better showing in the Old Spice Classic, because even then they have yet to suffer a bad conference loss. They have also been particularly tough at home, losing only to Minnesota (but that occurred before Claxton's injury) and Wisconsin.

Who is dangerous for the Nittany Lions:

At the time of his injury, Geary Claxton was second in the Big Ten in scoring only to Eric Gordon at IU. Claxton was pouring 17.5 points per game, which is an average that will likely stay in the top 10 even as the season continues. Needless to say he was a large part of the Penn State attack, but the Nittany Lions have now had a game and a half to adjust to life without him. Junior Jamelle Cornley is now the team's leading scorer at 12.6 points per game. He has been a starter since day 1 for Penn State, so he brings plenty of experience to the table. He only stands 6-5, but he has a 240lb. frame to deal with in the post and he can step outside to hit the occasional three.

Freshman guard Taylor Battle and Junior guard Danny Morrissey are the next high scorers at just over 8 points per game. Battle has been especially good since the Claxton injury, scoring 20 against Indiana on Sunday. Battle is learning to distribute the ball well as a freshman point guard, leading his team in assists. Senior guard Mike Walker had a particularly good game against Virginia tech with 17 points, but he has been relatively quiet since then.

What not to fear from Penn State:

Obviously, losing a player like Claxton from a team that relied on him to do a little bit of everything is a severe blow. He also was Penn State's leading rebounder at more than 8 per game. That honor now falls to Cornley at just 6.4 per game. Penn State has almost zero size in the paint with only 6-11 senior Brandon Hassell logging significant minutes. His minutes are even down since last season, and he has yet to do anything of note in Big Ten play. Regardless of this lack of size, Penn State still leads the conference in offensive rebounds per game, though again, a large portion of that statistic was gained with Claxton.

Complicating matters even more is the fact that Penn State does not shoot the ball well no matter where they are shooting it. Percentage-wise they shoot better from the floor than us at 43%, but they rank only ahead of Illinois from the free throw line (60%) and ninth in the conference from 3-point land. This shows that even with Claxton they struggled to shoot the ball, and he was shooting just under 50%. Technically Penn State is scoring almost a point more per game than us, but they have put up some big numbers in games against teams like Lehigh and Canisius.

General Outlook:

Up until Claxton got hurt I had Penn State as one of the tier 2 teams we would be fighting for an NCAA berth. Since then the Nittany Lions have lost two games, but they have come against Indiana and Wisconsin. For a half Penn State was able to stay with the Hoosiers in Assembly Hall, but Indiana pulled away to a 16 point win. In that game Cornley and Battle had big games, but received almost no help from anyone else.

I kind of see Penn State as a distorted image of our team from last year with Cornley playing the role of Carl Landry. He is their only real post presence at this time, so it will be key for Calasan and Johnson to get established in the paint early. I would like to see us overwhelm them inside with some of our own size by playing both Calasan and Johnson at the same time. If possible we could even send Chris Reid in to give them some fits. Nemanja seems to be going hot-cold on us, and his last game was hot. If he stays that way tonight we shouldn't have too much trouble.

Defensively Penn State ranks 9th in the conference in scoring, and since we seem to rotate scoring better than any team in the league we should be able to keep them guessing. Keaton Grant has the hot hand of late, so if he is on let's ride him until he bucks us. If he isn't on early we need to simply shift to whoever will be on tonight, be it Kramer, Moore, Green, Hummel, or Martin. I am still calling for Kramer to shoot more because we usually have success when he does. He has only been in double figures once at home this season and that came against Bethune-Cookman. He blew up against Michigan State though and we nearly got the upset.

Honestly, if we take this team seriously tonight I expect to win. They are one of the few teams in the conference that we have a size advantage against if we choose to press it. They also are still adjusting to missing nearly a quarter of their offense and rebounding. The points have to come from somewhere and I feel that if we can contain Cornley we should be able to come out with another road win. We cannot afford to look past them to Saturday when Wisconsin comes to town. I know many are looking at the Wisconsin game as a way to announce that we're indeed ready to contend right now, but to give that game its full value we have to take care of business on the road tonight. A win would also give us half of the necessary tier 3 wins I have outlined in my NCAA scenario. Since I have a hard time seeing us losing to Northwestern in either game it would also put us in a good position to finish with at least three road wins, which is already a step up from last year.

We must distribute the ball to the hot hand while getting everyone else involved in the offense, we must dominate the paint when we have the favorable matchup, and we must contain Cornley. If we do those three things we should be able to win easily, but there is very rarely such a thing as an easy win on the road.

Just to be safe, I think we should require each player to douse themselves in Old Spice cologne before tip-off.

Purdue 72, Penn State 62

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Big Ten power Poll week 3

Sorry for the lull in posts since the Illinois game, but the extended weekend lent itself to a trip to Chicago and little time to write. Once again in the Illinois game we saw a slow start at home lead to a dynamic finish. We held serve against another tier three team at home and if we can continue to do so in the remaining home games against Northwestern, Penn State, and Iowa we should be in very good shape for the tournament. Since we’re a few days removed from the game and only a day away from the next one at Penn State I will skip over the belated analysis and defer to my colleague Boilerdowd over at Boiled Sports for his analysis of the game. In short: Keaton Grant was awesome again and Calasan showed up inside. We’re a very good team when those two things happen.

For the remainder of this update I wanted to get into my ballot for this week’s power rankings and go over what our non-conference opponents are doing to help build our strength of schedule. Right now that is the weakest part of our profile when it comes to the tournament, but we can continue to help ourselves by simply winning the games we should in Big Ten play. As bad as much of the conference has looked to this point I still maintain that if we do that we will be fine. There is no way they will keep out an 11 or 12 game winner in conference play because it has never happened before.

2007-08 Non-Conference opponents update:

Bethune-Cookman (7-11, 2-3 MEAC) – The Wildcats play in one of the weakest conferences in the country and their only hope of dancing is to win the conference tournament. Even then the MEAC winner is almost always in the play-in game regardless of record, as they are a bunch of schools that get beaten up out of conference before playing each other for their one bid. Hampton is the best team in this conference and they have already beaten Bethune-Cookman once. We’re getting virtually no help from the Wildcats, as they have no signature wins and have lost to teams like Wofford (as we have), Savannah State, and someone called Warner Southern.

Lipscomb (8-11, 2-3 Atlantic Sun) – The Bison nearly took us down in Mackey Arena during the second game of the season, so it’s a very good thing we avoided this bad loss. I had high hopes they would compete for the Atlantic Sun crown but that has not been the case. This is another one-bid league with Jacksonville leading the conference at the moment. Lipscomb has yet to play the Dolphins. Their next game is against Mercer, who earlier this season went on the road to beat the USC O.J. Mayos. Lipscomb does not have a single decent win at this time.

Loyola, IL (6-12, 2-6 Horizon) – The Ramblers are at the bottom of the Horizon League and will probably stay there all season. Obviously Butler is in the tournament unless they completely fall apart, but Cleveland State is beginning to make a case for an at large bid and both Valparaiso and Wright State are capable of running through the conference tournament to grab the auto bid. Loyola will give us no help unless they beat Butler at Hinkle on Thursday.

Clemson (14-4, 2-2 ACC) – I wish we were playing them now because I am confident we could close the win. Even then I feel we would have won if Kramer had not gotten hurt. Instead we missed an opportunity for a good road win and we very well could be compared to this team right on the bubble on selection Sunday. The better they finish in the ACC the better it is for us because it keeps them off the bubble.

Indiana State (9-8, 4-3 MVC) – We’re getting some surprise help from the Sycamores as they have been very competitive so far in the Valley. They aren’t a threat to get an at large bid, but if they ever learn how to play away from the Hullman Center (currently 8-0 at home, 1-8 on the road) we’ll get even more help. The best win so far is over Southern Illinois, but the Salukis have fallen hard this season.

Ball State (3-13, 2-2 MAC) – I thought the Cardinals were going to be the worst team we played all year because of the fallout surrounding their program, but they have played decently in the MAC of late. We’re certainly not going to get any help from them, but three wins is about three more than I expected. They also beat Central Michigan who won at Michigan so they have a semi-respectable win.

Missouri (11-7, 1-2 Big 12) – This is another team that could end up sitting on the bubble with us on Selection Sunday, more so than Clemson at this point. They are probably behind Iowa State right now based on record and the fact the Cyclones beat them head-to-head. Right now Missouri also has a better win than us having beaten Texas. They are a difficult case because if we want them to do worse, that bogs us down since we lost to them. If they do better we will be in competition with them for a spot.

Louisville (13-5, 3-2 Big East) – Clearly this is our best out of conference win, but right now the Cards are probably on par with Ohio State. All five losses aren’t horrible, but they will need to compete for the Big East title if we’re going to get a boost for beating them. They have games left against five ranked teams and each win they get boosts our schedule even more.

Texas Southern (4-14, 3-2 SWAC) – Much like Bethune Cookman, the Tigers play in a conference that is destined for the play-in game almost every year for its one entrant. Things were looking good for us as they started 3-0 in the conference, but on Saturday Texas Southern gave Grambling its only win of the season and then lost to Jackson State last night. We will get nothing from them except a very small boost if they win the SWAC.

Wofford (9-8, 2-5 SoCon) – Wofford, I had such high hopes for you. The Terriers had a very good non-conference season beating us and nearly beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Since getting into Southern Conference play, however, the Terriers have been beaten up. The SoCon is a pretty good little league, but Davidson is obviously the class of the conference. They have a small chance at an at large bid if they run the table and lose in the conference tournament final to someone, but other than that it is a one bid league. Right now Wofford doesn’t have high hopes for that bid.

Iowa State (12-6, 2-1 Big 12) – This loss may hurt more than the Wofford one simply because of bubble positioning. Right now if you put us, Iowa State, and Missouri on the board for the last spot we would be behind both of them because of this game. The Cyclones are playing better and better of late, and the only bad loss came against Bradley. As they continue to do well in the Big 12 we will be more and more hurt by their loss until they get to lock status.

Missouri State (10-9, 3-4 MVC) – The Bears are probably helping us a little more than the Sycamores right now based on the fact they killed Indiana State in Springfield. A top division finish in the Valley and good showing in the tournament would help us even more. There are no terrifying losses to this point, but no standout wins either. They are a team that could get hot and steal the Valley’s auto-bid if they get a good draw, so that would help as well.

Florida International (5-12, 2-5 Sun Belt) – The Golden Panthers play in a league with a couple of good teams, but most everyone else is on the fringe of Division 1. Right now those two good teams are South Alabama and Western Kentucky. Both are working hard to put together at large profiles as a fallback to the conference tournament, and as a result they are using teams like Florida International as fodder. FIU will give us no help unless they turn things around immediately and become a player in the conference tournament.


I was going to do another theme this week, but I will save it for next week since I didn’t have time to do the research I wanted to do on it. In the meantime here are my rankings for this week with a brief commentary on each team:

1. (1) Indiana (16-1, 5-0) – I can’t argue against the Hoosiers for number one as long as they keep winning. Even though they are doing it ugly they are still doing it. They have a very interesting mid-conference game against Connecticut this week.

2. (2) Wisconsin (15-2, 5-0) – If Purdue can get past Penn State this Wednesday Saturday will mark a huge opportunity for a win with the Badgers coming to town. Wisconsin has yet to be challenged in conference play, but maybe we can catch them looking ahead to the Indiana game after us.

3. (3) Michigan State (16-2, 4-1) – The Spartans have looked a little off in conference play so far, but they still have won four games. Minnesota is certainly frustrated by them after two close losses. In theory they have four easy games until they come to Mackey Arena, but as much as they are struggling don’t be surprised if they drop one.

4. (6) Purdue (13-5, 4-1) – We’re another team that is getting it done against the bottom of the league. A win tomorrow night at Penn State would put the Boilers in a good position to challenge for the conference title if they upset Wisconsin on Saturday. That is a large if though.

5. (5) Minnesota (12-5, 2-3) – I like the way the Gophers are playing, but they just lost two golden opportunities, no pun intended, to state their case for the committee. Much like us they can greatly improve their profile against the bottom of the league, and the game on February 27th in Mackey will be huge.

6. (4) Ohio State (12-6, 3-2) – Ohio State has not helped their case very much with this three game losing streak. The next four should be wins, but if they get tripped up they could teeter off of NCAA lock status.

7. (8) Iowa (9-10, 2-4) – I love how the Hawkeyes are giving every team they play absolute fits right now. They may not be the most talented team in the league but they are going to make you earn your win over them.

8. (7) Penn State (10-7, 2-3) – It’s really a shame the Nittany Lions lost Geary Claxton, because I felt they could have competed with Minnesota and Purdue for an NCAA bid with him. I still think they are a dangerous team at home, like almost anyone else.

9. (9) Illinois (9-10, 1-5) – I hope I didn’t read Boilerdowd right and that Illinois is considering firing Bruce Weber. That would be a mistake and certainly someone else would grab him quickly. The Illini are struggling this season, but they have more than enough talent to be more than an irritant to everyone else. Visiting Champaign will be difficult for the Boilers.

10. (10) Michigan (5-13, 1-5) – The Michigan blogs have officially gone from “Will we win a Big Ten game” to “Will we beat someone other than Northwestern?” I’ll call it now: Someone will sleep on this team and lose.

11. (11) Northwestern (6-9, 0-5) – Northwestern does not have the benefit of playing themselves, otherwise I would expect a win from them. I am honestly not seeing them grabbing said win unless someone completely botches them. Kevin Coble is a great player though.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Here comes the Great One

It's too bad tomorrow's game in Mackey Arena is a sellout and I can't go, because it is rare that we are visited by such greatness. As everyone knows, Illinois coming to town with coach Bruce Weber leading the way. I love coach Weber and feel we missed the boat when we let him go, but that is beside the point. Illinois also brings with them reserve guard Jeff Jordan, who is the son of none other than the greatest player to ever play the game, His Airness, Michael Jordan. I am not one that gets all weak-kneed in the face of celebrities, but I must admit that I would be honored by Michael's presence and would be nearly catatonic if I passed him in the concourse of Mackey Arena. Jeff doesn't exactly play a ton for Illinois, but if Michael is indeed coming to West Lafayette tomorrow we should welcome him with open arms. He is simply the greatest to ever play the game of basketball, and I always admired him not for his skills, but for his competitive drive and the way it physically pained him to lose.

Okay, now that I have my man-crush out of the way it's time to get on with the business of previewing this Illinois game. From my Big Ten power rankings on Monday I compared the Illini to Britney Spears. A few years ago they were on top as one of the best in the nation. Now they are struggling at .500 and are 1-4 in the league. I had them pegged as one of the teams we would battle for an NCAA berth this year, but unless they get on an unbelievable winning streak starting tomorrow they are an NIT team at best. I have moved them down to tier 3 status (revamped this morning), meaning it is more important than ever to win this game. We can't afford to lose a home game to a tier 3 team, and a win would also begin stirrings of a possible Big Ten title (stirrings only).

Illinois so far:

Are the Illini allergic to Garcia's Pizza or something? I found out this week that Champaign still actually has a Garcia's Pizza, which instantly made me jones for some since Purdue's location has been long closed. If they could please bring me some over on the bus that would be great, I want them to carry the allergy with them since the Illini have played so poorly at home. Things started well for the Illini as they picked up a pair of convincing wins over Arizona State and Oklahoma State in the Maui Invitational and appeared to be on their way to another NCAA bid. Early losses to Duke, Maryland, and Arizona certainly aren't bad, but since then things have fallen apart. Illinois lost to Miami (OH), Penn State, and Tennessee State at home. Those three losses probably killed any goodwill Illinois gained from its earlier wins.

The Illini are still a very tough team even if their record doesn't reflect it. They played Indiana to a pretty close game this past Sunday and hung in there against both Arizona and Maryland earlier. What the Illini lack is an ability to finish, and that was evident in all three of the bad losses mentioned above. It is obvious to me based on their work in Maui that the talent is there, but they only recently broke a five game losing streak by beating Michigan this week.

Who is dangerous for the Illini:

Once again we are facing a team with size as 6-10 senior Shaun Pruitt leads Illinois in both points (12.8) and rebounding (7.8). Brian Randle returns for what seems like his 16th season in Champaign, averaging 10.2 points per game from his forward position. Junior guard Trent Meachem is also averaging 10.2 points per game. Meachem is the biggest 3-point shooting threat, shooting about 35% from long range. The top four scorers for the Illini are all upperclassmen, which makes their recent struggles even more boggling.

Illinois defends the 3-pointer well, holding teams to just 30% from beyond the arc, but as is expected from a team that is hovering at the .500 mark overall, there aren't really any other eye-poppingly good statistics out there. Illinois seems to trend to the middle or bottom of most statistical categories according to the Big Ten's website, but their size does help them on the offensive glass. No one is even in the top 15 overall in scoring.

What not to fear from Illinois:

If the Illini are at the line we had better box out. Illinois shoots a pathetic 59% from the free throw line as a team, good for dead last in the conference right now. The same can be said for their 3-point shooting, as they are the only team in the conference below 30% from long range. The Illini rank ninth in scoring in the conference, and aren't particularly stifling when it comes to defense at 61 points. Illinois is one of those teams that isn't really, really bad, but they aren't really, really good either. In a down year for the Big Ten they are positively mediocre.

Like us the Illini normally plays a rotation of nine guys, and they are fairly balanced in scoring with no one standing head and shoulders above the rest. Their most recent contest against Michigan was a perfect example of this in that their top four scorers were their top four by average and each was in double figures. They do share the ball well in that they near the top of the conference in assists, but it's been awhile since they've been able to beat even a marginally good team.

General Outlook:

It's become a common refrain, but this is a big game for Purdue. We must hold serve at home and beat the teams we should beat. I know it sounds like the football team's outlook, but this year will be considered a success if we just make the tournament. We can do that by simply beating everyone we should beat the rest of the way. To do that we have to win these home games, and in my revamped tier system I am not allowing for a loss at home against one of the conference's bottom five teams.

Illinois is obviously going through a down year, but they are coming off of a much needed 18 point win over Michigan at home. Is that something that is going to allow them to get their mojo back? Since there isn't a single standout we need to focus on we will be forced to play more team-oriented defense as well. They also have a lot more experience than we do, as both Randle and Pruitt were around for that team that nearly went undefeated a few years ago. Pruitt has the ability to be a serious matchup liability inside since Calasan and Johnson are gaining experience.

I expect another close game simply because Illinois has played a ton of them this year and they are not afraid to play on the road. You don't know what you're going to get with this Illinois team because they have some good wins this year, but some bad losses as well. We must be ready to play again because we cannot rely on "bad Illinois" to show up. Of course, as long as they show up with some Garcia's for me, I don't care. Purdue 67, Illinois 60.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A little basketball, a little football

In yesterday's posting I forgot to give a prediction of last night's game, but I think it was obvious in my pre-game analysis that I expected a close contest that would be decided only at the end. We were going to a place where historically we have struggled to win (remember the 1996 team losing there at the end of the season, but still gaining a #1 seed in the NCAA's) and facing a team that was going to make us earn every inch of floor space for 40 minutes. That is what has me so delighted with this win, and confident that we can snag road wins at Michigan, Penn State, Illinois, and Northwestern down the road. In watching the game on ESPN's gametracker last night I was very concerned we gave up a 12-0 run during a near 6 minute scoring drought, but we responded with 12 quick points of our own to go on top for good. Much like me at the Neon Cactus (circa 2001-02) at 10:30 on a Thursday night, the seal has been broken. We know we can win on the road now, and another hurdle has been passed for this young team.

Positives from the Iowa game:

Keaton Grant – I could not be more pleased with his play this year, as he has kept us alive and allowed the freshmen to have their natural growing pains. Both he and Green have proven they can be go-to guys if necessary and their leadership both the rest of this year and next year will be immeasurable in the development of this team. Both are certainly more than the role players I envisioned them as coming into the year. Now they are getting attention instead of being unnoticed in the background, which is good because it's just two more guys for teams to worry about. Since we're going 9 deep and all nine are capable of having a 20 point night that is huge.

E'Twaun Moore – Cold-blooded killa. That's how I describe his late three with the shot clock winding down. You get the sense that Moore is starting to heat up a little and find his shooting touch. His average has now crept into double figures and we cannot have enough shooters if we're going to compete in this league. I like the fact that, unlike Eric Gordon, E'Twaun has championship experience and knows how to win games and championships with his teammates. The Indianapolis Star started a Gordon Gauge this week to track his progress as the most prolific scoring freshman in Big Ten history. I have your tracker right here. It reads Moore 1, Gordon 0 in terms of the most important thing: championships won in a career. And by the way, that one came against Gordon in last year's state championship game.

Free Throws – They win ballgames. You can't ask for more than a perfect night from the line, especially since many came at such critical points of the second half. We shot less than 70% from the line against Ohio State and I asked for improvement. Thank you for delivering!

3-point shooting – I honestly did not expect this to be much of a weapon for us coming into the season, but so far it has gone very well for us. I can't remember the last time we hit 11 threes in a game, and the best part is they are coming from multiple sources instead of just one specialist. Calasan got in on the act last night by knocking down a pair of treys, and we know Green, Moore, Hummel, Martin, Grant, and Kramer can shoot the three as well. I don't want to get to the point where we live and die by it like Butler, but it is a very nice weapon to have.

Things to work on:

Scoring lulls – This is nitpicking, but we cannot have 6 minute scoring lulls against better teams. This killed us in the previous three road games and almost got us last night. Iowa is a team that has had more trouble scoring than a 50-year old guy in a college bar this season, and we let them run off a 12-0 run that nearly lost the game for us. I like our scoring balance, but we can't afford to take five minutes off at a time.

Inside play – Our two biggest inside threats, Johnson and Calasan, had 6 points combined last night. None of those came in the paint as they came on Calasan's two 3-pointers. We're going to need more from them in the paint if we want to have a chance against Wisconsin, Michigan State, or Indiana later this year. We also got out-rebounded by one of the worst rebounding teams in the league.

Terrance Crump – His ankle injury is starting to show, and we need to get him healthy. I like what he brings to the table when he is healthy because he is one of our few players that can change the pace of our offense when necessary. We don't really have another slashing player that can get inside quickly and either score or draw the defense to him for the dish off. Even when he does get healthy he needs to stop turning the ball over and get more assists.

Field Goal shooting – Part of it was cold shooting, but part of our struggles last night from the field came from the fact that Iowa is a good defensive team. Still, 38% from the field is pretty bad. Thankfully we had the 3-point shots falling. We hit 11 triples to their five and won the game by five points when almost everything else was even. At least we hit the big shots when it mattered most down the stretch.

On to football:

College Football News published its way too early rankings of all 120 Division 1-A teams for the 2008 season and I will say this: We won't get accused of playing a weak schedule according to them. Purdue came in ranked 56th. This a little bit lower than I expected considering we will have one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the league returning, but with the questions of offensive line, receivers, and defense it's understandable. I can actually see our defense improving further than expected if we can settle on some linebackers early. I think the receivers will sort themselves out as well, even though the biggest loss will be Keller at tight end. There is also the "win one for Joe" factor that will be bigger than some teams think. Here is how the rest of our schedule stacks up according to their rankings, and my thoughts on the rankings themselves.

Northern Colorado – unranked – They are Division 1-AA fodder and the guarantee Joe will tie Mollenkopf. Just watch out for their slashing punter. We lose this game and we shouldn't even bother the rest of the way.

Oregon -- #16 – I think this is a little high as they looked like crap without Dixon except in the bowl game. The reason for that bowl game, Stewart, is heading to the NFL. This may be a team we're thankful for getting early instead of late.

Central Michigan -- #66 – Too low. This is a dangerous, dangerous team that if it can ever find a defense will take someone big down. They know they can compete with us, and they will be very familiar. Don't be surprised if the Chips beat us, but from previous experience they will need to hold us under 40 to do so.

Notre Dame -- #45 – Too high. They had better go earn it because if Charlie's great recruiting classes led by Jimmy Montana have another losing season there will be rioting in the streets of South Bend. If the Irish ever get improvement from their offensive line they can get better quickly. I won't believe it though until Chuckles delivers. They're going to have earn any respect from me.

Penn State -- #11 – Too high. I would never rank a team this high that is going to be breaking in a new quarterback. Still, we know Penn State has talent so it is possible. It could be the final year for JoePa as well since he is in the last year of his contract, and what better way to say farewell to him. We know they can always play defense.

Ohio State -- #1 – Slightly too high.
The Bucknuts will be very good next year and they didn't have a ton of defections.
CFN's rationale is that this was supposed to be a rebuilding year and they still went 11-1 to reach the title game. The nature of the system is that they can go unbeaten and win the Big ten to get back to the title game regardless of the past two years. They also have a tailor-made schedule building game at USC.

Northwestern -- #64 – Too low. Lake the Posts has been preaching that this could be another Northwestern once-in-four-years run where they surprise some teams in the Big Ten. I tend to agree, and the trip to Evanston could be a trap game for us. The Wildcats had an up and down year this year, but really weren't that far from an 8-4 bowl season.

Minnesota -- #74 – Too low. Last season they were like Central Michigan with a worse offense and a worse defense. They were already the worst defense in the country, so they can only go up from there. Surprisingly they had quite a few close games this year, so ANY defense could cause a huge jump.dsr

Michigan -- #21 – Too high. This is probably one of the more overrated teams in the country going into next season. They lose all their seniors plus their good juniors declared for the draft. They are breaking in an entirely new system on top of bringing in a quarterback that will have never played a down of college football before. Not only that, they are coached by a guy that choked away a national title game bid, at home, to Dave Wannstedt. Michigan has talent (they always will) but 2008 will be a rough year.

Michigan State -- #32 – Slightly too low. This is a team I am afraid of now. I fear we can easily start a long losing streak to them because once they learn how to win close games they will only get better. Dantonio has them pointed in the right direction and I wouldn't be surprised if they had an Illinois like year in 2008.

Iowa -- #38 – Unbelievably too high.
Seriously, what was so inspiring about this team the past two seasons and what pictures does the Iowa staff have of everyone in the media? They choked away a bowl game to Western Michigan on senior day!!!!!

Indiana -- #52 – Way too high. If I am Joe Tiller I post this ranking in the locker room with the explanation CFN gives and also put a copy right in the dust ring where the bucket should be in the Mollenkopf. Middleton is a stud we let go and Lewis is shifty, but look at their bowl game: An Oklahoma State team that got blown out by Troy at home took away Hardy and beat the crap out of them. Hardy took himself away, and Thigpen is supposed to be this great back because of one good game in two years. That only happened because our defense acted like they had never seen a halfback draw before and were stunned it was a legal play. With all the emotion of it being Tiller's final home game there is no freaking way we will lose the bucket game this year, so IU had better hope they get some wins elsewhere to make a bowl.

That means we are ranked ahead of only four teams on our 2008 schedule, so we're going to need some "upsets" to make Joe's final season a good one. Based on emotion, returning talent, and improvements from what we have I can see us winning 8-9 games, but I can also see us losing that many if things . I still point to that Oregon game as huge because with a win we can be 4-0 before the conference starts, but a loss could mean 1-3.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Post of the week, Baby!

We have passed yet another milestone this week at Off the Tracks, as Gopher Nation, the esteemible blog that compiles the Big Ten Power Poll for basketball, bestowed the award of "Post of the Week" upon this humble blog for my efforts in this week's poll. As a token of my appreciation I have hyped up and linked his story here through Ballhype, and he will be receiving the Nobel Prize for blog-writing as a further token of my esteem. Tom will also be featured prominently in the new What people are saying about Off the Tracks section of the site until someone says something better.

On to more serious matters now, and that means it is time to take a look at tonight's opponent. Purdue has played three road games to date, and despite solid efforts in each game we are 0-3 on the road. Tonight is a road game we can hardly afford to drop if we have any plans of making the NCAA's. Those hopes were renewed on Saturday with the victory over Ohio State, and they must be sustained with a solid win tonight. Even last year, with a better team, we struggled our way to just two wins in true road games. Those wins came over Penn State and Northwestern. This same Iowa team crushed us in Iowa City and nearly derailed our hopes of getting into the dance.

Iowa so far:

They really aren't the same Hawkeyes of a year ago as Steve Alford has departed to New Mexico and Todd Lickliter was hijacked from Butler's sweet 16 run to take over. When Alford left a few former players left with him, but Lickliter has begun to shape this team into what he wants it to be. You've got to figure that since Butler was one of the most well-coached and fundamentally sound teams in the country last year they will soon reach that level. Naturally, the Hawkeyes have been up and down in what amounts to a transition year.

After seeing the win over Michigan State and near miss against Indiana I'd like to say that they defend their home court well. Losses to Louisiana-Monroe and Drake suggest otherwise though. Drake is a quality team that currently sits atop the Missouri Valley Conference and is 14-1 overall, so that loss is not as bad as it looks. So far they have played the toughest schedule of anyone in the conference, opening with Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan State before hosting us as arguably the fifth best team.

In games against common opponents the Hawkeyes have lost to Iowa State and Ohio State, but have beaten Michigan State. Two suspicious losses came in the South Padre Invitational, as the Hawkeyes lost two games by double figures to Utah State and Bradley.

Who is dangerous from Iowa:

Junior guard Tony Freeman and Senior guard Justin Johnson are both averaging more than 14 points per game. Outside of those two the scoring drops of significantly, as the Hawkeyes are not nearly as balanced in scoring as us. The next high man is freshman forward Jarryd Cole at 6.6 points per game. Because of this scoring dropoff it is no surprise that Iowa ranks dead last in the conference scoring-wise at almost 57 points per game. That is eight points behind 10th place Illinois. They are also not a very strong rebounding team, staying ahead of only Northwestern in terms of cleaning the offensive glass.

Iowa's deficiencies on the offensive end of the floor are made up for on the defensive end, as the Hawkeyes are the second best defensive team in the conference behind Wisconsin. They give up a little over 57 points per game, and are perfectly happy in a low scoring, old-school Big Ten slugfest. Because Lickliter is trying to figure out who he needs to work with the Hawkeyes are surprisingly deep with players that have played significant minutes. Ironically Freeman, the team's leading scorer, has played in the fewest games (just 7), but had his best outing at 22 points against the Spartans. Amazingly ten players average at least 14 minutes a game, playing to the theory that it is critical to keep fresh guys on the floor for a defensive-minded team.

What not to fear from Iowa:

As mentioned above, they are not going to get in a 95-93 shootout with us. Iowa barely shoots more than 41% from the field and little more than 61% from the free throw line. Those are simply abysmal numbers and it means we should have little trouble in simply outscoring this team if we can break their defense. Iowa scored 73 points and made a furious comeback against Indiana, but in its other three conference games they have scored 51, 48, and 43 points. The 43 points against Michigan State was enough for a win since the Spartans scored just 36 in that game, which probably set the game of basketball back about 40 years.

As Black Heart Gold Pants mentioned in their wrap of the Michigan State game, the Hawkeyes are an incredibly hard working team. Unfortunately, they just aren't that talented. The close loss to Indiana probably has more to do with a lapse by the Hoosiers, but I'll give credit to Iowa for fighting until the end. Michigan State simply crapped the bed against a bad team on the road. Still, of the four bottom teams in the Big Ten right now, (Illinois, Michigan, and Northwestern are in this group) I think the Hawkeyes are the best simply because they will not quit against you. This makes them dangerous as Michigan State found out.

General Outlook:

With the news that Penn State's Geary Claxton is done for the year the bottom four could quickly become the bottom five. Of those five Iowa is the best team. They have already proven they can play the conference's best teams well at home, and since we're not on the level of Michigan State and Indiana (yet) we must naturally be wary. The Butler style of offense demands that teams be able to shoot the ball better than the opposition, and that is simply something Iowa does not do yet.

The mission for this game is simple: go in there and make our shots to simply outscore them. We have too many weapons and our scoring is way too balanced for us to struggle in this one. Michigan State does not have our balance but their leaders struggled, so that made them struggle. Defensively our task is to do the same to them. If we're able to shut Freeman or Johnson, just one of them, we should have little trouble pulling off the win.

That being said we were supposed to have little trouble beating Minnesota in Minneapolis last year, and look how well that turned out. Recently we have not played well at all in Iowa City (Neither has the football team. It must be the pink locker room), having lost our last three games there by at least 10 points. That alone makes me leery of facing this team. It should be a good chance to find out if we can finally close out an opponent on the road.