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Friday, February 29, 2008

Senior Day for Tarrance Crump

An anonymous reader pointed out to me yesterday that Tarrance does have a bit of a legacy at Purdue. I had simply forgotten it because I was unable to watch that specific game. While my wife and I were in Hawaii for the 2006 football game against the Warriors Purdue took on Virginia in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and the allure of the beach was much stronger than watching Purdue and Virginia at 1pm. We were still feeling out this Purdue team after a trip to Maui had netted a pair of wins, but they were certainly showing signs of improvement over the previous couple of seasons. In a tight game Crump drove the lane and hit the game-winning floater to beat the Cavaliers and give Purdue its first victory over a ranked opponent in three years. Not only did that win become a critical resume-builder for a return the NCAA tournament, it may have been a key turning point in the fortunes of the program. If Tarrance doesn't make that shot there is a strong possibility that we lose that game, and maybe it undermines the confidence to win a few more games to get back to the NCAA tournament. In retrospect, Tarrance does have a much bigger hand in what Purdue is building right now because of that shot.

Tomorrow he will return to the scene of that shot for the final time. It is my hope that coach Painter gives him the start and he has a good game after all he has been through for the program. Our opponent is Northwestern, a team that is playing some of its basketball of the season and is encouraged after finally breaking through with a conference victory. They now leave Oregon State as the only major conference team without a conference victory this season. Not only that, they have been able to play well against some good teams of late, pushing Purdue and Michigan State while giving Indiana a scare last Saturday night. The Wildcats should present an easy challenge, but we still have to get the job done.

Since we last saw the Wildcats:

Thanks to Michigan we now have a winner in the race to be the worst major conference team in Division 1 and it is not from our own conference. My colleague over at Lake the Posts deserves some sort of medal, Nobel Prize, or vacation of his choice for following the Wildcats this season. He has spoken about their lack of a killer instinct for some time, but Craig Moore finally delivered it with a clutch 3-pointer in the final minute against Michigan. Sure, it was witnessed by approximately 8 fans (3 of which have the Big Ten Network and were watching at home), but a win is a win.

Moore has been playing incredibly well for the 'Cats lately and he is now their second leading scorer on the season. He connected on eight 3-pointers for 25 points against Michigan, and has been in double figures in eight of their last nine games. The one game he was under 10 points came when Purdue visited Evanston two weeks ago. In that game Moore hit only two of seven shots, but every shot was from 3-point land. Only Iowa's Justin Johnson has shot more 3-pointers this season than Moore conference-wise, and no one has made more (88) than Moore. This kid averages more than eight 3-point attempts per game.

So we know what Craig Moore is going to do, but the other dangerous player is Kevin Coble. Among active players (Geary Claxton is still up there) Coble is the best scorer in the league behind only White and Gordon at IU. Coble went nuts for 37 points against Indiana last week on 12 of 16 shooting from the field. Since he is only a sophomore, Moore a junior, and #3 scorer Michael Thompson a freshman the pieces are in place for Northwestern to actually make a little noise next season.

Aside from the win over Michigan and the close call against Indiana Northwestern lost another very close one on the road at Iowa 53-51 immediately after the Purdue game. Since the Hawkeyes come to Evanston next week Wildcats have high hopes for a home conference win now. Iowa certainly has not been playing well enough lately to give them a ton of confidence even against the likes Northwestern. Simply put, the Wildcats are playing their best basketball of the season, and with their quirky offense they have just enough spunk to require our full attention Saturday.

Fortunately, we should have learned our lesson he first time around. For 30 minutes in Evanston the Wildcats played us even. That is when we decided enough was enough and we finished on a 23-6 kick. Our own Moore, this time of the E'Twaun vintage, had a career day with 28 points, seven of them in those final 10 minutes. It was Keaton Grant, however, that got things going with back-to-back 3-pointers to break a 50-50 tie. Now that we know we can turn it on pretty much at any time against Northwestern it should serve us well tomorrow.

Game Outlook:

Nearly everybody thought this game was going to be our easiest game among the last four, and nothing has really happened to change my thinking on that. Northwestern is certainly a dangerous team because anybody can be dangerous if shots start falling and momentum gets going in their favor, but we are one terrible performance against Wofford from being undefeated at home. An IU lurker on the Purdue boards talked about how Mackey Arena isn't a tough place to play. If it's so easy to win in Mackey why is it the only team in the conference (Ohio State) to do so the last two years had three NBA draft picks on it? We are a completely different team since the Wofford game, and I honestly think it will take a Wofford-level performance to lose this one. One must remember: even in Wisconsin's impressive streak under Bo Ryan at the Kohl Center they still lost a head scratcher to transitional D-1 member North Dakota State.

Even with Northwestern's sudden scoring surge they are 10th in the conference in scoring and comfortably last in rebounding. As long as we don't have 16 turnovers like we did in Evanston I suspect we will be just fine. All we need to do is take care of the ball, be patient on defense as they work the ball around, rebound against the one team we have owned the glass against this year, and not overlook them. Those are pretty easy keys to a victory. Purdue 67, Northwestern 55.

Non-conference opponent updates:

It's been awhile since I have done this, but here is an update on how each of our non-conference opponents are doing in terms of helping our seed for the NCAA tournament. I'll try to rank them in terms of who is helping us the most, and who is doing the least.

Louisville (23-6, 13-3 1st place Big East) – A win over the first place Big East team is certainly the crown jewel of our non-conference season. It should help us avoid being put in the same bracket as them as well.

Clemson (20-7, 8-5 3rd place ACC) – Since this came on the road it is far from a bad loss. The Tigers are solidly in the dance and after beating Miami this week they are securely the #3 ACC team. Playing them close on their floor is a bonus, but I still feel we could have won.

Missouri State (15-15, 7-10 8th place MVC) – The Bears are here because they did just get a quality win over Drake. They have just enough in them to make a run in the Missouri Valley Tournament, making our win better.

Indiana State (14-14, 8-9 7th place MVC) – The Trees are the easiest team in the country to figure out. They are nearly unbeatable at home (12-1), and terrible on the road (2-13). They face Missouri State in Terre Haute this weekend. Willa neutral court in St. Louis yield ties?

Missouri (15-13, 5-8 10th place Big 12) – The Tigers have played a tough schedule, but had they done anything in the Big 12 they would be NCAA-worthy. We were in full control until the final 7 minutes too, which may have been the worst stretch of basketball we have played all year.

Iowa State (14-14, 4-9 11th place Big 12) – I think this one hurts more than losing to Wofford. At least the Terriers played out of their minds and are having a decent year. Iowa State is the definition of mediocre.

Wofford (14-15, 7-12 8th place So-Con) – Well, they were having a decent year before their current six-game losing streak. Getting to the dance would mean shocking unbeaten Davidson in the tournament.

Lipscomb (14-15, 8-7 6th place Atlantic Sun) – Right now they are hanging about even with Gardner-Webb, and we know what they can do.

Bethune-Cookman (11-17, 5-9 9th place MEAC) – A 26-point win over a bad MEAC team is what you would expect.

Loyola (IL) (11-17, 6-11 8th place Horizon) – They will offer no help as Butler, Wright State, or Cleveland State will win this auto-bid.

Florida International (9-18, 6-11 10th place Sun Belt) – The same as Loyala above with South Alabama and Western Kentucky replacing Butler and Co.

Texas Southern (7-20, 6-8 7th place SWAC) -- Check out this strange ending from when Texas Southern beat Arkansas-Pine Bluff. It doesn't really help us it is their highlight of the year.

Ball State (5-21, 4-9 10th place MAC) – At least they aren't dead last in the MAC like many expected. It will be years before they are good again.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

That is what good teams do

Because the Big Ten Network and the fact I physically cannot get it in my apartment (it is Brighthouse or Amish Cable in my building) is the bane of my existence I was once again reduced to watching the gametracker on ESPN.com or following the scores across the screen while I was working out. Fortunately I was not paying attention when Minnesota made a comeback to briefly take a three point lead, but from what I saw the rest of the time it appeared Purdue was in firm control of the proceedings throughout. Since working for the NCAA affords the benefit of having the Big Ten Network in the break room I was able to watch most of the first half at lunch today, confirming such suspicions. I continue to be amazed, as most people have, that this team does not play as young as they are. Last night easily could have been a difficult game, but instead the Boilers came out after a long layoff and looked like a team loaded with upperclassmen that simply outclassed their opponent.

At the start of both halves we established our dominance early with a run. In the second half we kept Minnesota comfortably at bay and never let them mount a serious charge from behind. This is the mark of being a good team. When you are a good team you make a win like this one, in a game that was very physical, look easy. This is one of the few times this season Purdue has been able to do this, and coming off of an eight day layoff it was even more impressive. I am now fully convinced that the Iowa State, Wofford, and maybe even the Missouri losses were complete flukes. If we were to play them again, at least Wofford, we would win going away.

Positives from the Minnesota game:

E'Twaun Moore – I can get very used to E'Twaun having regular 20+ point games. He has now topped 20 three times in our last eight games with a low point of only 11 against Indiana and Wisconsin. He is learning that he can create his own shot and I am very pleased with his ability to knock down the pull-up jumper. In games where he shoots 50% or better we do so much better as a team, and his worst shooting performance (at Indiana) is our only loss in our last 13 games. The best part is that we are not really a team that has to go as good as someone like E'Twaun goes. We continue to have multiple options that force people to play him one-on-one. E'Twaun has also proven he can pass and dish out assists well when necessary, which only makes him even better.

Keaton Grant – The numbers weren't eye-popping, but Keaton had an especially efficient game last night. Since we aren't that great of a field goal shooting team yet efficient performances like Keaton's last night are critically important. It also helps that he hit the biggest shot of the night with a running 35-footer just before the half. Instead of going into the locker room tied we instead had a 3-point lead and Minnesota was demoralized by their poor defense in those final few seconds. Minnesota had just played a pretty good first half, but we had survived their big run. They then slacked off in those final seconds and Keaton made them pay dearly. We never trailed again, and it was a huge boost.

Field Goal shooting – It was better. I stated in yesterday's that if we took care of the basketball and shot 40% or better we would be able to win easily. We shot exactly 40%, turned the ball over 10 fewer times than our opponent, and walked away with a 12-point victory. We also shot better than 40% from 3-point land, which is critical for a team that has come to rely on the three as much as we have. I am most encouraged by the fact that our field goal numbers continue to improve.

Focus – To me this was the biggest positive from last night's game. There are some bad, bad teams in the Big Ten this year, but Minnesota is not one of them. They are very well coached and they have enough balance and talent to give anyone a good game. Other than their big first half run we never let them even have a chance at stealing this one away from us. I feel like we turned a major corner by taking a good team and putting them away like we did.

Negatives from the Minnesota game:

Rebounding – I continue to be confused as to how we allow the rare team without a size advantage against us out-rebound us by a large margin. Surely we are not that bad in the paint. Robbie Hummel came to rebound, but he is quickly a basketball freak of nature that is channeling Brian Cardinal and Larry Bird in terms of effort. How can our post players, Calasan and Johnson, continue to have less than five rebounds between them? Did John Allison come back with some remaining eligibility? Allison had to be the worst rebounder in a 6'11" body I have ever seen, but he usually pulled down at least 3 a game by accident. We have to improve our rebounding if we're going to go deep in March.

Nemanja Calasan (after the game's first five minutes) – I love this guy's intensity, but recently he has been great in the first five minutes only to disappear for the rest of the game. Calasan has had some big games for us this season, but lately he hasn't done much aside from a 3-pointer and maybe a basket or two inside to start the game. I was hoping to see more from him and Johnson last night, but if they want to save it for the postseason then breakout there it is fine with me. Regardless, he needs to rebound better. I think we need to have Sutor and Reid just hack on him in practice while he's trying to make a lay-up so he can finally hit some two foot shots with consistency.

Defense – Working on this over the break must have helped because we held another team to roughly 35% from the field. Wins become so much easier when you do this, and we never let them find a go to guy. We found ours in E'Twaun, but they were never able to get in a groove or find a guy that would consistently get a basket for them when they needed it. The closest guy was probably McKenzie, but his scoring was pretty spread out. Gopher Nation was especially impressed with Purdue's defense.

Up next:

One down, three to go seems to be the general consensus of the Purdue fan base right now. With Michigan's shocking loss to Northwestern that road trip doesn't look nearly as scary now. Conversely, Northwestern coming to Mackey Arena this Saturday looks to be a little more difficult than expected, but it is a game that if Purdue plays to their ability they should handle the Wildcats quite easily. That leaves next week's roadie at Ohio State. The Buckeyes, who face the Gophers in what amounts to an NCAA elimination game Saturday at the Barn, will either be a demoralized bunch or a desperate opponent fighting for their postseason lives.

First we must take care of Northwestern on Senior Day. I have not said much about our one senior this year, but Tarrance Crump has done a very good job of accepting his role with all the freshmen and overcoming some of the challenges he faced early in his career. Coach Painter's first season in 2005-06 was a pretty forgetful one, but for Crump it had to be downright frustrating. Before that season Tarrance was involved in a nasty hit and run incident with a pedestrian while driving drunk. It was obviously not the smartest decision he ever made, but it gave him an opportunity to take stock before he ever set foot on the court of Mackey Arena as a player. Coach Painter naturally suspended him for the season under the guise of a forced redshirt, and Tarrance had to watch as the Boilers floundered on the court.

Tarrance doesn't put up big numbers, but the example he set by sticking with the program, taking his punishment, and earning his way back to the floor speaks volumes for his character. I am sure this has come off in a number of intangible ways that we do not see on the stat sheet. I'd like to thank Tarrance for his commitment and contributions to this team. He may kind of fall into the cracks historically as a bridge between last year's two seniors and this dominant class now, but he certainly will leave his mark because of his contributions. Personally, I will remember his game at Illinois where he stepped up and played well while everyone else was struggling in the first half.

I will be in attendance Saturday for my first game at Mackey Arena since last year's Indiana game. It is a testament to how far this program has come that we are selling out home games against the last place team in the conference again. It will be good to give this team one last taste of a loud home crowd, and hopefully many people will join me here in Indy in a few weeks when the Big Ten tournament gets underway. It is looking like we'll be wearing home whites for quite a while there, so why not bring the home crowd with us?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Back to the Front

It has been a long 8 days, but tonight he Boilers return to the court against the last conference opponent they have yet to see this season. Minnesota is a bit of an enigma, as the Gophers have sat right in the middle of the conference for most of the season. With only two home games remaining and a very tight race at the top of the conference every single game is important. Since Northwestern finally broke through last night at Michigan even that one is no longer the gimme it once was. This Boilermaker team has already locked up a bid to the tournament, so now it is time to play for a conference championship and a higher seed.

The Minnesota game provides an interesting challenge since it is our first game after a long layoff since the end of the non-conference season. It also is the first game we have had a chance to play after a loss since early January. Boiled Sports pointed out this morning that the start of another 11-game winning streak would have us finish as the Big Ten champion for both the regular season and tournament, plus it would put us in the Final Four in San Antonio. I can certainly live with that, and hope it starts tonight.

Minnesota so far:

The Gophers are one of the most well-covered teams in the Big Ten bloggers' network with Paging Jim Shikenjanski, Gopher Nation, and From the Barn each providing excellent analysis throughout the season. Gopher Nation is even the organizer of our Big Ten bloggers' poll where Purdue has had a grip on the number one slot since winning in Madison. Seeing as how the Gophers don't necessarily get along with the Badgers we're probably viewed as good friends of their since we have swept Wisconsin.

On the season, with a few exceptions, Minnesota has done very well in terms of beating the teams it should beat. They currently sit at 17-9, 7-7 in the Big Ten and with a strong finishing kick they could sneak into the NCAA tournament. Because of that they will be wanting tonight's game pretty badly. Among their nine losses the only one I would quantify as a "bad loss" and 84-60 drubbing at the hands of Illinois in The Barn. It is Goldy's luck that the Illini finally chose to play up to their talent level in that game. Outside of the conference Minnesota lost at a decent Florida State team by 14 in the ACC/Big Ten challenge and by 17 at UNLV. The Rebels are a borderline tournament team, but Florida State is not.

Though the Gophers have 17 wins the real problem lies in the fact that none of them could really be called a "good" win. The Big Ten Conference season is littered with near-misses, as Minnesota played Michigan State tough twice but could not break through in addition to close losses to Indiana and Wisconsin. Since Minnesota is battling Ohio State for a perceived fifth bid from the conference the loss in Columbus hurts, but they can get it back by beating the Buckeyes in Minneapolis this weekend. The best win out of conference came over Iowa State 68-58 in Ames. That was the second game of the season, and it should be noted Iowa State beat us. The rest of the non-conference schedule, aside from the two losses, are teams Minnesota should have easily beaten.

Who is dangerous for the Gophers:

Minnesota shocked many this past offseason by going out and grabbing Tubby Smith as a head coach. Say what you will about the man, but he has won a National Championship and more than 400 games, so he can coach a little. As far as players go, the Gophers throw out a lineup that is very much like ours in terms of scoring balance. They too have three players who average in double figures in Dan Coleman (12.5 per game), Lawrence McKenzie (11.4) and Spencer Tollackson (10.5). Three more players chip in at least seven points per game. Coleman built much of his average in a solid non-conference season, but he has leveled off in Big Ten play. McKenzie has become more of the go to guy in Big Ten play, but much like our own team it can change on a game by game basis. The Gophers share the ball very well, averaging more than 16 assists per game.

Minnesota is one of the best scoring teams in the league, ranking third at more than 71 points per game. They have continued to score well once the Big Ten season started, but their numbers are just slightly below our own in conference games only. They also rank 4th in field goal percentage and are the best 3-point shooting team in the league. These numbers, combined with their own lack of overall size (no player is over 6'9") means they are almost a clone of our team. They are very well coached, as mentioned above, and they have enough overall talent to give anyone trouble.

Defensively Minnesota plays very well, as they force the most turnovers (more than 18 per game) of anyone in the league. They also average nearly seven steals per ballgame, meaning we will have to take care of the basketball against a team that has better turnover numbers defensively than our own. Considering how hungry they are for a big win and the prospect of passing Ohio State right in front of them they could play extra hard.

What not to fear from Minnesota:

For all the positives that Minnesota has, it seems like they lack an ability to finish. A statistic that stands out is turnovers given up. Minnesota turns the ball over more than anyone in the league except Iowa, and that means they have a tendency to beat themselves. While they cause a lot of turnovers, they also give up a large number of them. If we're not able to take care of the basketball tonight's game could easily devolve into a sloppy, low-scoring affair like the Iowa game.

Minnesota also struggles from the free throw line. They are not quite as bad as Illinois from the line, but they only hit roughly two thirds of their shots there. Minnesota isn't particularly strong in terms of rebounding, but their numbers are slightly better than our own. As previously mentioned they are not particularly big. Only Coleman averages more than five rebounds per game. They rebound by committee much like we do, so we should be able to have more success inside than we did at Indiana.

One player to look out for who is not really a danger to score, but can hurt us with his ability to distribute the ball is freshman guard Al Nolen. Nolen ranks in the top 8 in the league in assists and is tied with Chris Kramer and Trevon Hughes for most steals per game. He's the type of player that can truly change things without even putting points on the boards, and as a freshman could be quite a handful in this league the next few seasons.

General Outlook:

I am honestly a little afraid of this game because of how similar the teams appear on paper. The only real difference between the two is the intangible quality of being able to finish close games. Purdue has proven they have it by winning 12 of 14 league games, while Minnesota has been unable to break through against a good team yet. Based on that historical precedent we can expect a close game with Purdue's edge in intangibles coming out in the end.

Unfortunately there is still the wild card of Purdue not playing a game in more than a week. In each of our previous long layoffs we have come out and won, but it has taken us a little while to get going. This break has been advantageous in allowing players like Kramer and Grant to get healed up a bit from some nagging injuries. The team also seems more focused on causing havoc defensively with how much they stressed defense in practice. We should also have fresher legs for the stretch run, and that will help with our shooting.

I am wondering why we focused so much on defense when we have been a good defensive team. I suppose coach Painter simply figures that the shots will eventually start falling again after the dismal performance in Bloomington, so we might as well practice something we can get even better at. This team will be almost frightening against anyone in the country if they continue to improve on defense, and if we can ever rebound as well it will put us in the realm of nearly unstoppable.

Tonight's game should be quite interesting since the teams are so similar, but I expect Purdue's consistency in the end to be a major positive. It also helps that we get to play at home right after this break. The home crowd and the home rims should be a huge boost for a team that has had to sit on a loss to its biggest rival for 8 days. The fact we have had to sit on that loss and consider it while watching both Indiana and Wisconsin go out and continue to win games could be a hidden positive.

All we need to do is take care of the ball tonight because Minnesota thrives off of creating turnovers. Indiana had the athletes and overall talent to overcome the turnover discrepancy in Bloomington, and even then we had to have a terrible night shooting the basketball for them to win. Minnesota, while being a good team, does not have these advantages. When the Big Ten season started I viewed this game as critically important towards getting the necessary 11 wins for an NCAA bid. I felt Purdue and Minnesota were about equal. If we had not gone on an 11 game tear in conference play we probably would be just about equal with them right now. Despite that, it is still an important game, just for a different number of reasons. If they win it means even more to them in terms of the post-season, but to us it would be another step. I would like to see us play a little more aggressively in the paint against a team that does not have a size advantage and not rely on the 3-pointer so much. We also need to defend the perimeter, not allow good looks from long range, and cause turnovers. Shooting better than 40% would also be nice. If we do these things we should be able to get a pretty good win to start our stretch run. Purdue 68, Minnesota 62

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Big Ten Power Rankings: Star Wars style!

I was originally going to theme this week’s power rankings with an Oscar theme, but then I realized two things: 1. It is way overdone, and 2. ESPN beat me to the punch with their “Stanley’s” this weekend. At this point it is very heard to call a number one team in the power rankings since there is no real separation among the top three teams. Michigan State will have their say this week with games against Wisconsin and Indiana, but until then the teams are virtually tied. I guess you could drop Purdue back a bit because they are the only one that has lost a game outside of the top 3, but you can also drop Indiana for nearly losing to Northwestern. The argument for dropping Purdue can be refuted by saying they have the best record against the top 3.

So I was looking for another theme this week and decided to keep with the movies. I feel the need to appeal to my inner geek, so I am going to make this a Star Wars themed Power Rankings.Sure, it is also overdone, but not as recently as the Oscars so it seems more fresh. Personally, I don’t care if I am 28 years old and I still read Star Wars novels. Everyone has their addictions, and at least mine is better than crack. The force will be with these Power Rankings, as dark side (Indiana) is already clouding things at the top.

1. (1) Purdue (21-6, 12-2) – Luke Skywalker – Purdue hangs on to my top spot by the smallest of margins. Much like the Hoosier Report had in its rankings, Purdue stays because they are the only team in the top 3 still unbeaten at home. I felt like taking it easy on Tom at Gopher Nation too by not having a 3-way tie at number 1 and screwing up the group’s overall rankings. Purdue’s long winning streak was finally broken at Indiana in one the worst games the Boilers have played all season. Purdue shot very poorly against the Hoosiers, and couldn’t take full advantage of the turnovers they caused. The comparison to Luke is apt because they are still young and slightly reckless, but they are also wise beyond their years. There is some question as to if they can handle the responsibility of being Big Ten champ in the tournament, but Luke did just fine against the Emperor and Vader. The Boilers should as well.

2. (2) Wisconsin (23-4, 13-2) – Obi-Wan Kenobi – The Badgers are very slightly behind Purdue right now based only on the season sweep by Purdue. I still think all three teams are very even at this point in the season, but with a gun to my head I would go with my alma mater or Wisconsin instead of Indiana. The Hoosiers simply have too many issues right now and eventually it is going to catch up to them. I compare the Badgers to Obi-Wan because both quietly go about their business, but they are very good at what they do. Wisconsin never panics, they never feel like they are in over their heads, and they often win when the odds are against them. The same can be said for Obi-Wan, as he gave up to Vader in Episode IV rather than be truly defeated. The Brian Butch game-winner at Indiana was like Obi-Wan killing General Grievous with a blaster.

3. (3) Indiana (23-4, 12-2) – Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker – Indiana is probably has the best mix of talent and experience in the entire league right now. In reality they are a freak shot by Brian Butch away from being undefeated at home and winning four games under the toughest off the court circumstances imaginable. There is virtually no separation right now between them and both Wisconsin and Purdue, and I feel if it were a true round-robin it is entirely possible they could beat Purdue in West Lafayette, but split with Michigan State like the Boilers have. If Wisconsin were to do the same they would all be totally equal. I reserve the Vader/Anakin role for them because they have enormous talent, but with the way many players are backing Kelvin Sampson it is like they have turned to the dark side. I am sorry, but writing someone’s initials on your shoe should be reserved for death/serious illness-type of support, not when your cheating coach gets caught and still manages to leave town with $750,000. It is almost like they don’t care that the reputation of a clean, respectable program is tarnished forever.

4. (4) Michigan State (22-5, 10-4) – The Emperor – Ultimately, they are not going to win the Big Ten because of the earlier losses to Iowa and Penn State. The Spartans still hold a frightening amount of power in the race with the games against Wisconsin and Indiana this week. Many analysts also think this is still a team that is a danger to make the Final Four, and why not? Duke was a shoe-in a week ago to be a number one seed, but they fell to Miami and Wake Forest to show their vulnerability. Even unbeaten Memphis dropped one at home this weekend, albeit to a very, very good Tennessee team. Just like how the Emperor subtly took over the Galaxy, everyone should be afraid of the experienced and well-coached Spartans sneaking up on them. They are starting to play very well.

5. (6) Minnesota (17-9, 7-7) – Han Solo – Aside from the Illinois game, the Gophers have been much like Han in that they beat who they are supposed to beat, but when they step up against one of the better teams in the conference they have often have their hands full. Minnesota is beginning to have a bit better of an NCAA case for themselves, but in order to do so they have to get at least one big win down the stretch. If they win their last four (at Purdue, Ohio State, at Indiana, at Illinois) they would be 21-9 and 11-7 in the Big Ten. That could certainly be enough for them to leapfrog Ohio State and snag the fifth bid for the conference. Even winning three of four may be enough if they have a good run in Indy. They have played some of the conference powers well, so it’s not entirely out of the question.

6. (5) Ohio State (17-10, 8-6) – Darth Maul – The Buckeyes had a bunch of flashy wins outside the conference, but they have been double teamed (ala Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon) by the conference powers of late. Their loss on Sunday and dismal second half effort certainly looked like they had been cut off at the waist. They certainly control their own destiny when it comes to making the NCAA’s, but they probably have to win at least two of their last four. With the way they have been playing lately that is a pretty tall order to ask. I don’t think they get in with an 18-13 overall record and 9-9 in the conference, especially if Minnesota passes them.

7. (7) Michigan (9-18, 5-10) – Lando Calrissian – Lando likes to play it fast and loose with the rules, just like Michigan did in the late 90’s. As a result, they think they are pretty smooth, but they are trying to work themselves out of quite a mess. Lando also had nothing early on in the saga, but played a big role late. Such is the case for Michigan as it has been playing very good basketball recently. The Michigan blogs openly wondered if this Michigan team would beat anyone but Northwestern this year, but now with a weak finishing slate outside the Purdue game they can get a pretty good seed (for them) in the Big Ten tournament. They may even win a game and stay around for a few days.

8. (10) Iowa (12-16, 5-10) – Chewbacca – What would a Big Ten power rankings list with a Star Wars theme be without Chewbacca? Chewie is a fan favorite, he’s furry, and you don’t want to piss him off. The same can be said for Iowa after they thumped Michigan State earlier in the year. Sparty got revenge this past Saturday, but the damage had already been done by then. I put the Hawkeyes here almost by default because they don’t quite suck as much as the teams below them. I still think they can be a dangerous team, especially in Indianapolis, but now they must win their last 3 games plus at least two in the Big Ten tournament to get an NIT bid.

9. (8) Penn State (12-14, 4-10) – The Wampa Ice Creature – Penn State was very dangerous and would probably be having a pretty good season if not for the loss of Geary Claxton. The same can be said of the Wampa. He was a badass until Luke chopped off his arm. After that he was still dangerous, but not as much for obvious reasons. I still don’t think Penn State is a very good team without Claxton, but there is just enough there that with one more upset in the last four games, be it against Indiana or Wisconsin, they can greatly help Purdue while getting themselves in position for an NIT bid. Even then they would have to win a game in Indianapolis to do so.

10. (11) Northwestern (7-18, 0-14) – C-3PO – The Wildcats move out of the cellar this week based on their two near misses. I don’t care what Indiana was going through, they have enough talent that they should beat Northwestern by 20 every time. I will give a ton of credit to the Wildcats for sticking around and nearly pulling off one of the biggest upsets in Big Ten history. Like C-3PO they are smart and fluent in many forms of communication, but no one really listens to them. Threepio isn’t especially dangerous to anyone, but he has had a few moments just like Northwestern did on Saturday night. They may not win a game, but they have been playing much better of late and Kevin Coble deserves a special mention for his explosive performance against the Hoosiers.

11. (9) Illinois (11-17, 3-12) – Jar Jar Binks – Aside from the Minnesota win, Illinois has been absolutely horrendous of late. Not only that, many people just wish Bruce Weber would shut up like most Star Wars fans wished Jar Jar would shut up in Episode I. Now that Brian Randle is done for probably the season they seem to have no other redeeming qualities, which is another trait they share with Jar Jar. I have gone to bat time and again for Illinois this season, but I will do so no longer after they simply refused to beat Indiana or Wisconsin. They have screwed up more wins by dumb plays and missed free throws than I have ever seen in a team, much like Jar Jar in starting the Clone Wars.

Friday, February 22, 2008

PING!

The Boilers face their toughest opponent of the Big Ten season with the dreaded Bye weekend, leaving me with a dearth of things to write about until Power Rankings come out on Monday. In an attempt to have some shallow analysis, let's break down bye week in the same style as every previous opponent.

What to fear from the bye week (Not what is seen on the left):

If this were the football team with its recent troubles I would fear them hanging out at Nick's, Harry's, the Neon Cactus, or any other West Lafayette watering hole. I am already slightly concerned after Crump and Green got into trouble out in Vegas and were forced to miss the Missouri State game. Fortunately we have two factors that allow us to avoid this: 1. West Lafayette is far from Vegas, and 2. The benefit of being a young team is they cannot legally get into these places yet. This, of course, did not stop Selwyn Lymon, but I would like to think this group of guys is smarter than that. Coach Painter is also a little harder on discipline than coach Tiller.

Bye weeks also lend themselves to the dreaded "dead hooker in the trunk" that has long been feared by the writer of this blog. Fortunately I have never seen a hooker in West Lafayette, but I may just not be looking in the right places.

Another thing to fear on a more serious level is that we cannot do anything of our own accord to maintain first place in the Big Ten short of a voodoo curse on Indiana or Wisconsin. It appears to be working in Indiana's case, however. We are completely at the mercy of Northwestern and Ohio State this weekend. Indiana will take care of themselves in the race if the following happens. Even Northwestern could get them without that many big names. Wisconsin is a different animal. They are facing an Ohio State team that is inching its way out of the NCAA field and could definitely use a big win at home over the Badgers to secure their place. Short of looking for mushroom clouds in the direction of Bloomington there isn't much we can do.

What not to fear from the bye week:

The bye week, when properly used, can be a great benefit to a team. I am actually glad we're utilizing it instead of playing a mid-conference game like Indiana and Northwestern have done. We've just come off of a particularly brutal stretch of games and can certainly use the time off to heal, work on shooting, and rebounding. It's not like we are suffering under the burden of a ton of injuries, but after 27 games guys are naturally banged up a little. This bye comes at the perfect time before we get into a stretch drive of games we will be favored in. We must stay focused on our goals of a Big Ten title and top four seed in the NCAA's. If we just win these next four games we will gather each.

Other topics:

It is February 22nd and that means it is baseball season again! It certainly doesn't seem like it when I look outside and see 2 inches of snow on the ground, but today marks the first time there is a uniform start date for NCAA baseball teams. Because of my wife's influence I have become quite a collegiate baseball fan. We couldn't have two schools further apart in terms of baseball tradition though. Her Miami Hurricanes have won four national championships and are usually on the short list for a berth in Omaha each season. They have made the NCAA tournament a record 35 consecutive years and last year lost a regional for the first time in 11 years. Already the Canes carry a #10 ranking into the season, and we will be making our annual trip to Miami to see them April 2-9.

Purdue, meanwhile, has only been to one NCAA tournament (1987) and lost both games in that appearance. Their facilities are worse than many high school teams in Indiana (they don't even have lights!) and they are on a Chicago Cubs-level streak of suckiness by having not won a Big Ten championship since 1909. While the Mackey Arena project has already received $17 million in donations from just 9 private donors, the baseball program's Field of Dreams campaign has barely raised more than a $1 million of the $6-7 million it needs for a new field. By comparison, Alex Rodriguez, who never even attended the University of Miami, donated more than $3 million to the Mark Light Field renovation. We aren't even seeking a grandiose facility with locker rooms and concessions, just lights and a grandstand so we can host post-season games if necessary.

These two programs could not be farther apart. We cannot even raise enough money to get a field with lights so we could potentially host post-season events, while Miami is the definition of postseason baseball. The guys who play on the Purdue baseball team are among the most forgotten athletes at the school, but they still have played very well considering their circumstances of late. They have to begin each season with about a 25 game road trip. They can never get a quality opponent to come to West Lafayette. They can barely get anyone outside of the conference or smaller state schools to come play at Lambert Field. Still, they have had some bright spots. In 2001 they knocked off the #1 team in the country (Rice) to start the season, were ranked in the top 25 for a week, nearly won the Big Ten, and if not for a two and out performance in the Big Ten tournament probably would have made the NCAA tournament. Guys consistently get drafted and are doing well in the minors (Mitch Hilligoss), yet they do it in relative obscurity.

The reason for this long diatribe is that this new uniform start date is supposed to level the playing field. Before this season Miami used to open its campaign, at home, as early as late January while cold weather schools were forced to wait until mid- or late-February, go on the road for a month, then finally come home and still have several games moved around because of weather. This also meant warm-weather schools like Miami had to play only a handful of mid-week games, while northern schools would be playing four game, three day weekend series during the conference season plus several mid-week games to even schedules out.

There are both pros and cons to this. It helps a school like Purdue, and perhaps the entire Big Ten, become more competitive in what is rapidly growing into a revenue sport. It hurts warmer weather schools by taking away a major advantage they had by getting to play at home before many schools could even play period. It also pushes the end of the season back further, thereby hurting minor league baseball, specifically short season A-ball. This can hurt many of the summer leagues like the Cape Cod League that many players go to after the completion of their collegiate seasons. Still, this could be a benefit to Purdue in the long run.

The Boilers will open their season tonight 15th-ranked Baylor. The season looks to be promising with several returning starters from a team that played well at times last year, but faded down the stretch. I always keep an eye on the baseball Boilers mostly out of curiosity. While in school I attended a game now and then, but with so few home games there simply weren't many opportunities. These guys deserve just as much support as the football or baseball guys because they work just as hard or harder. We're never going to get the 7,000+ fans and great atmosphere that Miami does for its big series, but we can have another winning team at Purdue. The Boilers only play 14 games this year before opening their home schedule on March 22nd, and they even get a game against a team from the 2007 College World Series when they play at Louisville.

With the uniform start date Purdue can build a program if the support is there, so if you're a student head on out to Lambert Field on a spring afternoon the next time you see them playing. It has to be a good product if EA Sports made a video game about it! The field has never been more level for Boilermaker baseball, so hopefully 2008 can be a banner year for them.

Women's Sports notes:

I have barely mentioned the Boilermaker ladies here at Off the Tracks, but it is time to give them some love. Lately the women's programs have been more competitive on a national level than the men's programs. The women's soccer team was a legitimate national title contender before getting upset by Indiana in the NCAA's. The women's golf team was a national runner up last year. The women's basketball program is down a bit due to injuries, but they have long carried the banner of best Purdue team nationally. Women's volleyball has performed very well of late as well.

One of my astute loyal readers, Hassan Merhi, sent me a great article about the up and coming Purdue women's softball team. They too recently played nationally ranked Baylor and beat them on the way to winning the Getterman Classic in Waco, Texas last weekend. The Boilers are already 6-2 on the season, and the Big Ten has proven it can compete nationally with Michigan winning the 2006 national championship and Northwestern regularly making the Women's CWS. I am certainly in favor of anything that puts my alma mater in a positive light and won't limit my support of sports teams to just football and men's basketball. Softball was still a very new sport at Purdue when I was in school and they have never even sniffed the NCAA tournament, but if things continue this way Purdue could have one more thing to be proud of athletically in 2008.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Three Team Mexican Standoff

There is a reason Purdue has never won 6 straight conference road games even though we have the most Big Ten titles in conference history. It's damn hard to do. It's possible to string together a few wins against the bottom of the league as we have this year, but inevitably you will run into that other really, really good team and lose in their house. During our five game road winning streak we got fat off the bottom of the conference with wins at Iowa, Penn State, Northwestern, and Illinois, but there was still the very good Wisconsin win in there. Last night our tendency to shoot poorly was finally our undoing. Even in that we still made a game of things, and I am confident that if there was a return match in West Lafayette we would win.

What we have now is a virtual dead heat for the Big Ten crown and number 1 seed that will even up once we pass our bye this weekend. In my mind all three teams are equal. How can you rank one ahead of the other when Purdue lost to Indiana, who lost to Wisconsin, who lost to Purdue? Even our other loss makes things even. Michigan State is not a bad loss, and the Spartans would be right in this mess as well if not for the losses to Penn State and Iowa. They may be out of it, but they will have a say with games against Wisconsin and Indiana the rest of the way. I'll get more into the rest of the season a little bit later, but let's take a closer look at last night's game.

Positives from the Indiana game:

Turnovers – While this is a huge positive, it also becomes a large source of frustration because were not able to build a big lead from these turnovers due to poor shooting. Indiana was clearly rattled at the start as even the sure-handed Gordon had five miscues. The good news is that if we continue to force 23 turnovers a game the rest of the season we will be in every game and probably win a bunch of them. We have to get better though at capitalizing on them and turning them into points.

Hummel and Martin – Hummel was his usual self, but I was very impressed by Martin's hustle and the way he was able to clean up messes around the basket. His ankle wasn't bothering him in the least and he did a nice job of showing no fear in the face of D.J. White. Unfortunately Scott had a horrible night at the free throw line. Robbie was the best shooter for us last night, but that really isn't saying much.

JuJuan Johnson – JuJuan was in foul trouble for a good portion of the night, but he played fairly well against White when he was in there. He continues to show glimpses of what he can be, and I am very excited to get another year of experience and a year in the weight room on him.

Defending Gordon – I'll give credit to Gordon. We defended him well and allowed him to only make four shots from the field. Great players find ways to get their points, however, and he got his from the free throw line. It's our fault for continuing to foul a great free throw shooter, but at least he wasn't nailing 3-pointers from Bedford.

Negatives from the Indiana game:

Field Goal shooting – This is just the first of what will be a big list of negatives since this is one of the worst games we have played in conference play. We went on the road, got more than 70 shots from the field, forced a ton of turnovers, but still lost by 9. It's not so much that we shot poorly, but we missed a bunch of easy ones as well. Green had a steal under the basket after a made basket in the second half but missed an easy one. Calasan was too strong on a number of lay-ups and putbacks. Open 3-pointers weren't falling. If we had just hit all of the easy ones we missed we win this game going away. If we can ever become a team that shoots just 10% better every game we will be very, very good. Poor shooting is the fire we have played with through most of the conference season, and last night we finally got burned.

Interior play – This has been the silent weakness for us for most of the season, but D.J. White exposed it in a big way last night. White was simply the man of the night with 19 points and 15 rebounds. Imagine if he had been totally healthy. We saw shades of this in the first Wisconsin game with Brian Butch had a field day in the second half, but we were able to survive it. We could not keep White off the offensive glass and he came down with every big defensive board he needed to. Fortunately we don't face a truly dominant big man except maybe Ohio State's Kosta Koufos the rest of the way.

Free throw shooting – This is another area where we are maddeningly inconsistent, but hopefully it will go away as this team matures more. We'll have one night where we shoot 85%, then another where we're back down around 50%. Indiana, in turn, turned this into a huge advantage. They only shot 13 more free throws, which is understandable for a team with a second half lead, but they only missed 4 and outscored us by 19 from the line. This cannot continue.

Surviving the little things – Much was made of Kyle "Frickin'" Tabor and his contributions last night, but to me the plays of the game were made by a guy I pointed out as dangerous in my preview: Lance Stemler. Stemler only attempted one shot and had three points, but his 3-pointer came at a critical juncture. It also came after he made a great hustle play for a block that erased a sure two points at our end of the floor. That was a five point shift and the 3-pointer is what put Indiana in the lead for good. These things get lost in the overall flow of the game, but last night this very small contribution turned out to be huge because it allowed Indiana to take a first half lead despite all the turnovers they were committing. It also allowed them to gain confidence, and they never looked back from there.

Rebounding – This is another glaring statistic. If you look at the Big Ten Conference rebounding statistics as a team we are not that separated from Indiana. It's only a 6 rebound per game edge, which is livable. We simply have to get better at rebounding the basketball, whether it is through recruiting or effort. Fortunately, I am very pleased by the fact that the two areas we need to work on, shooting and rebounding, are correctable and we're still 21-6 and in first place while doing both poorly.

Assists – This has been a huge plus for us all season, but last night we didn't share the basketball very well and it showed. It seemed we rushed too many shots. Of course, if we had hit more shots we naturally would have had more assists. Our ratio of assists to made baskets was still way down. We're not going to get many 3 for 15 nights from the floor for E'Twaun, so as he shoots better assists will go up.

Up next:

We head into our bye defeated, but with a chance to heal and improve in those two key areas. We also still control our own destiny for the conference title with two even teams. In the event of a three way tie we will get the number one seed based on having the best record in head-to-head competition between Indiana and Wisconsin. We would be 2-1 against those two, while Wisconsin would be 2-2 and Indiana 1-2. In a two-way tie we would lose to Indiana (going 0-1 against them), but win against Wisconsin (going 2-0 against them). Basically, if Wisconsin loses, we must have Indiana lose to get the number one seed. As long as we continue to win and Wisconsin does the same, we will be the number 1 seed in Indianapolis.

In our final four conference games we should be favored in at least three of them. Minnesota is a good team and is very well coached, but they have yet to break through against an elite team in the conference. Northwestern is Northwestern, but they have been playing better. I still expect a win over them in our final home game. Traveling to Ohio State could be tricky as they may be in full-fledged panic mode by that point and need a win to get off the bubble. Michigan scares me because they are playing their best basketball of the season, have nothing to lose, and could be on a seven game win streak by then. The bye will prepare us for this tough stretch of games.

In that time Wisconsin and Indiana will also continue to play, and must win their remaining games as well. Indiana probably has the hardest road with a road trip to Michigan State and home game against Ohio State. The Hoosiers will be favored heavily at Northwestern, Penn State, and Minnesota. Wisconsin as two potentially difficult road trips to Illinois and Ohio State in their next two before Michigan State comes to Madison. The Badgers then close with Penn State at home before going to Northwestern. If Wisconsin gets to those two games unscathed they should probably be considered "in the clubhouse" with the championship.

The important thing to remember is that this is just one loss. It is not a bad loss as Indiana is very good and certainly earned it. Winning a Big Ten championship and securing a top four seed in the NCAA tournament is still a strong possibility. We must continue to take the attitude of one game at a time, and simply enjoy some time off to rest before Minnesota comes to town. No matter what seed we get in the Big Ten tournament it is going to be tough with an expected final four of Purdue, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. If that happens, no seed will help or hurt either team. As long as we avoid the 4 seed, which we likely will, we don't have to face an Ohio State team fighting for a bid in the opening round. Things are still looking very, very good as long as we don't stumble in these last four games.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Holy War

It is a welcome site to see Indiana and Purdue play with so much on the line even with all the surrounding storylines. In reading this morning's game preview from the Indianapolis Star the players said all the right things, but with so many guys from the state of Indiana, and the fact they have clearly chosen sides in this fight, there will be more at stake than the perceived loyalties of the little-used Chad Sutor. For the fans, we have waited and waited for this moment. There is the vociferous minority on both sides that will trash the opposition regardless of who is in uniform. For the most part, however, Indiana fans respect the way our team plays and is coached, while Purdue fans respect the athleticism and heart of D.J. White and Eric Gordon. Indeed, many Indiana fans have even been hiding out on the Purdue boards since the Kelvin Sampson mess erupted.

What I wish for tonight is a close game that comes down to the wire and, at least for a couple of hours, shuts of the noise of the Kelvin Sampson situation. Because of the frosty relationship between the two, some speculated that Kelvin vs. Matt would become the new Bobby vs. Gene, but it looks like that will not happen now. The rebirth of this rivalry will be borne on the players themselves. If this is a mere one-year blip before Indiana suffers hard under the disciplinary hand of the NCAA then hopefully it will be a game that will be remembered for a long time. If it is that blip, hopefully Indiana will use it as a goal to get back to this level, much like Purdue has had to do since the rivalry began to fade in the late 90's

Indiana so far:

The word on the street is that Indiana's coach, Kelvin Sampson, may be under some NCAA scrutiny for impermissible phone calls, but that is neither here nor there. Seriously though, the mess happening in Bloomington has overshadowed what has been a pretty good season for the Hoosiers. The Hoosiers have just four losses on the season, but they are all to teams currently ranked in the top 13 in the country. Connecticut is currently 13th, Xavier 12th, and Wisconsin 10th. While the losses have been to very impressive teams, the Hoosiers did not have a win over a ranked team until shellacking Michigan State this past Saturday night. Other than Connecticut and Xavier, the best non-conference opponent the Hoosiers have faced is either Illinois State or Kentucky.

To be fair, no one saw Kentucky falling into the abyss, so that is costing the Hoosiers of what would normally be a quality win. The same can be said for Southern Illinois, which came into the season as a top 15 team but has long since fallen apart. Had those two teams played to expectation Indiana would have had a very good non-conference schedule, and the win at Southern Illinois would certainly be considered a marquee win. Since the Salukis recently ended Drake's run at perfection in the Valley that win may gain some strength if Southern Illinois gets hot at Arch Madness. They are certainly more than capable of stealing that auto-bid and even doing some damage in the tournament itself. The same could possibly be said for Kentucky, but they have a much more difficult challenge in the SEC.

Who is dangerous for the Hoosiers:

The misconception about Indiana is that they begin and end with the duo of Gordon and White. Considering they are ranked 1-2 in the Big Ten in scoring and combine for nearly 39 points a game it's easy to focus on them. When you do, you forget about a very talented supporting cast that can contribute in key spots. Just ask Illinois. The Illini vilified Eric Gordon for 50 minutes in Champaign, but in the end it was Armon Bassett that knocked in 11 of his 16 points in the second overtime for the win. Bassett averages 10 points per game while Jordan Crawford is also in double figures at 10.2. Purdue cannot afford to forget players like Jamarcus Ellis and Lance Stemler.

I am especially leery of Stemler, as he is the type of player that gets lost for the majority of the game only to hit a crippling, back-breaker 3-pointer when Gordon dishes to him in the corner. I don't know what it is, but I hate this type of player, mostly because that's the kind of player I would be if I had any kind of consistent jump shot. It's a jealousy issue, I guess. Indiana is currently leading the Big Ten in scoring at more than 76 per game. They didn't get that high solely on the backs of Gordon and White. Players like Bassett, Crawford, Ellis, Stemler, and DeAndre Thomas are more than capable of helping those two out with the scoring load.

What not to fear from Indiana:

When my high school team was preparing to face Luke Recker and DeKalb in the 1997 Ft. Wayne Semi-State final we were very concerned with facing a scorer of Recker's caliber. In an interesting strategy, we chose to concentrate on the other four guys on the floor and didn't change our defense specifically for Recker. We got some help from a great night on the offensive end of the floor, but at the end of the night Recker had his typical 25-30 point night. It was enough that we won 69-46 to go on to the state finals. We knew he was not going to score 50 points to personally beat us against our base defense, and this is something the Boilers can carry over to tonight.

Both White (if he plays) and Gordon are going to get their points. When Indiana has struggled this year is when the supporting cast has not done much. Against Xavier the Hoosiers gave up 80 points and both Gordon and White only had 36. Against Wisconsin the first time the supporting cast did little of anything. The second time around Indiana was better as Bassett had 12, but other than that Indiana had little from anyone else. Against UConn it was both White and Gordon that struggled, while Bassett and Crawford still had solid games.

Across the board statistically Indiana is very good. They rank near the top of the Big Ten in nearly category, as is expected from a 21-4 team. Their defensive numbers aren't that great, and teams can rebound well against them, but these are deficiencies that are easily overshadowed when you lead the league in scoring. About the only offensive weakness is the turnover category. Indiana ranks ahead of all the conference leaders except Michigan State in this category. Since the Purdue defense thrives on creating turnovers this will be a key area. I wouldn't be too concerned about Purdue not having a good turnover day in Evanston. Despite not having won a conference game the Wildcats are actually the best team in the league at taking care of the ball.

General Outlook:

So much of this game seems to hinge on whether D.J. White will play or not. If he does not play Indiana will lose a serious advantage in the paint when it comes to both scoring and rebounding. If he does play he will likely be limited both in his minutes as well as his effectiveness on the court. Playing a hampered D.J. White could even put Indiana at even more of a disadvantage depending on how effective he is. Sampson seems to think he will play and he is a tough kid, so I would be more surprised if he did not play at this point because of how big of a game it is.

The second point is obviously the looming distraction of the Kelvin Sampson situation. All signs certainly seem to be pointing towards this game as Sampson's last on the bench for some time, if not ever for Indiana. He obviously is a good coach and his players have a great rapport with him. Though they are saying all the right things about it not being a distraction and everything, it has still been a very long week in Bloomington for all parties involved. We cannot discount the, "win one for coach," factor.

It is a testament to what we have accomplished that many feel we should be able to win this game regardless of if White plays. With the poise that Purdue has shown in every road venue this season (the final seven minutes at Missouri aside) I would be absolutely shocked if they faded in the heat of Assembly Hall. There will be heat too, as the Indiana fans and students will be ready for something other than off the court news to talk about. They are always ready when Purdue comes to town, just as we are always ready when they come to West Lafayette. It should be a fantastic atmosphere for a college basketball game tonight.

I would love to see a game much like the 1997 game won by Purdue 89-87. I want to see both teams fighting hard and leaving everything on the floor. For Indiana, they need this a little more than us. We are still in the hunt for the Big Ten title and coveted #1 seed in the Big Ten tourney if we lose. If Indiana loses, they would be two games behind us in the loss column while we would only have four games (three in which we would be heavily favored) to play. Not only that, they would be a game behind Wisconsin as well, and not have the tiebreaker with either of us. This is Indiana's game for the Big Ten, while history is against us in that we have never won six straight road conference games.

I honestly feel if we don't change our defensive philosophy to specifically counter Gordon and White we will have a chance. When Chris Kramer got hurt near the end of the Northwestern game I was scared because I knew we would be sticking him on Gordon. Ever since he eliminated Drew Neitzel in the Michigan State game I have wanted to see him against Gordon. This also frees us for help down low when D.J. White has the ball. If Kramer can just slow Gordon (he won't stop him entirely) our chances of winning will greatly increase. Everyone else must do their jobs defensively against the other players and help on White.

Offensively I expect more of the same from us. Indiana is not as stout defensively as a team like Michigan State and Wisconsin, so we should be able to score on them. Gordon is an especially good defender one-on-one, so expect him to be on whoever has the hot hand for us. We must continue to play team-oriented basketball on the offensive end, and we cannot be afraid to attack inside against White if he plays. Kramer set the tone early last year when he drove against White without fear and he got into the big man's head. Finally, I hope we have good officiating both ways. It would be a shame for this game to be decided either way by the officials. Let the kids play and decide the game.

I expect a very close, hard fought contest with neither team backing down. Purdue certainly has a very good chance to win, but many times these two teams have been evenly matched and the home team has been able to win in the end. I can see it happening tonight, but again, I hope I am proven wrong. Indiana has a lot of emotion in their corner and D.J. White looks like he will play. If he doesn't play, this prediction is officially off. Indiana 71, Purdue 70.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Clearing a path (with Power Rankings)

It seems as if the IU game has been far off in the distance for a long time. It is bad enough we only get to play the Hoosiers once this year, but the wait is almost interminable having to play 26 other games before them. In this case, however, it may be a good thing. Back in November Indiana was going to be an automatic loss for a team that would struggle to sneak into the NCAA's. Playing them once was viewed as a blessing since we would need every win we could. Since we have started winning and continued to win as the Big Ten season has progressed the scope of this game has become larger and larger. Now it is shaping up to be the Big Ten game of the year. A Boilermaker win clears a path where we could only need four wins in two games to lock up a Big Ten championship and #1 seed in the conference tournament. In that scenario we would need the help of someone else knocking off Wisconsin, but at the very least we would be all alone in controlling our own destiny. A loss pulls us back into a tie with the Badgers and Hoosiers, meaning every game the rest of the way would count for all parties involved.

It has indeed been a long wait, but it is finally here. Tomorrow I will do a more in depth preview of the Hoosiers. I am holding off until I get more information on the D.J. White injury and whether he will play or not. Saturday afternoon we cleared the final hurdle for what will be a return to the classic IU-Purdue rivalry by taking care of business once again on the road. Even though it was just Northwestern, getting a road win is still a big deal to this team. We had four road wins in four years combined before this season, now we have five this year alone, and will need at least two more to secure the conference.

Positives from the Northwestern game:

E'Twaun Moore – All we have heard all season is Eric Gordon this and Eric Gordon that. E'Twaun is growing into a very good player in his own right, and I need only post the following as a reminder of the last time the two shared a court on opposite teams. East Chicago made life very difficult for Gordon in that game, and if D.J. White cannot go tomorrow night we could see a repeat in Bloomington. Just because E'Twaun was the man on Saturday doesn't mean he will be Tuesday night, but he had a pretty good audition in the final tune-up. Who doesn't want to see him and Gordon have a classic scorer's duel one more time?

Keaton Grant – Keaton played probably his best game in weeks. His back-to-back 3-pointers when Northwestern had made a game of it were absolutely crippling and propelled us off on a lethal finishing kick. It is good Keaton is finding his shot again, especially from long range. Lately he has had some very ugly looking 3-point attempts. He also did a very nice job on the glass pulling down seven boards, though Northwestern never seemed to show even an interest in rebounding.

Team Assists – I love that we continue to keep this total high in conjunction with the number of made field goal attempts. Kramer led the march of dimes with eight and had a very good game distributing the ball. We will likely be using him on Gordon Tuesday night, so hopefully he can save something for the offensive end and continue to get his teammates the ball. Robbie also had a good game in this regard. He stepped back a bit with just nine assists, but five assists from him in addition to whatever he scores is a huge plus. It's nice to see him be just a role player a little ahead of schedule, isn't it Terry Hutchens?

Field Goal shooting – 57.8%. I would have to do some checking, but I think that is the best we have shot from the field percentage-wise all season long. Everyone shot the ball fairly well and we were very efficient in terms of getting open looks and knocking them down. I'm not quite sure what we shot down the stretch, but it had to be a pretty good number considering we closed on a 23-6 run. If we continue to shoot this will on Tuesday we will do very well.

Rebounding – Again, it was only Northwestern, but we completely dominated the glass. Sometimes it can be a mental thing and you just need to see the statistics of doubling up an opponent in rebounding. I only got to see about the last 8 minutes or so of the game, but it seemed like Northwestern doesn't even try to crash the glass. That's fine if you shoot 70% and your opponent shoots 30%, but it does not work for the Wildcats.

Negatives from the Northwestern game:

Turnovers – It is a positive that we played a bad game for 30 minutes and still had the ability to just crush a team in the final 10, but we must limit our turnovers against Indiana. I will give credit to Northwestern in that they may have played their best game of the season. We seemed to get a little frustrated with their 1-3-1 early on and turning the ball over 10 times more than your opponent will keep any team in the game. It is one of the rare times we have not taken care of the basketball this season and in turn haven't caused a ton of turnovers. We can get away with against Northwestern, but not Indiana.

Bench play – During our 11 game winning streak we have gotten solid play from our bench. Saturday in Evanston the bench played decently, but it was still subpar compared to what we have seen in the past. Crump's numbers continue to fall off as he only played 7 minutes Saturday. JuJuan played 10 minutes, but gave virtually nothing. Combined with Calasan (who did start) we had another game of nothing in the post and those two will need a better game against D.J. White if he plays. Green and Martin did well, but were not stellar. At least the scrubs got a minute of play at the end.

Up next:

I am not going to split hairs about a 15 point road win against the last place team in the conference. The bottom line is that we struggled for 30 minutes against their funky style of play, then, once we figured it out we put them away. We played poorly and still won by 15, while Northwestern played one of their best games of the season and still lost by 15. That is simply the difference between a first place team and a last place team. When the rematch in West Lafayette comes around we likely will perform better having seen their offense once. A chance to clinch the Big Ten could be on the line, plus I will be in the audience, therefore we have nothing to fear.

We can now turn our attention to Indiana. Even if we lose we are still in good shape. I am a little concerned with the way they dispatched Michigan State, especially without D.J. White for most of the game. Still, we got in White's head last year in West Lafayette. It will be a tough game to win regardless of if he plays anyway, so one player will not make or break them. A loss would put us at two losses, but because of tiebreakers we would still be in good shape for the #1 seed in the Big Ten tourney. Should Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin all tie at 16-2 (very possible) we would have the #1 seed based on better head-to-head record among the three. We would be 2-1, while Wisconsin would be 2-2 and Indiana would be 1-2. Beating Indiana all but locks up the number 1 seed for us, as we would need to lose two of our last four to not get it. Even then Wisconsin would have to win the rest of its games.

Power Rankings:

This week's Power Rankings carry with them the theme of expectations and goals. Every team has high ones coming into the season, but at this point some need to be readjusted. As I rank the teams this week I will try to project where they will try to project realistic goals of where said team should finish the year.
  1. (1) Purdue (21-5, 12-1) Projection: Big Ten Champ, NCAA Sweet 16 – These are very reasonable goals at this point for the Boilers. Winning four of the last five will clinch the first part of that, and likely a top four seed in the NCAA's. After that, who knows? Depending on the draw I can definitely see Purdue getting as far as the second weekend. If they continue to play well going even further is possible.

  2. (3) Wisconsin (21-4, 11-2) Projection: Big Ten Champ (if Purdue loses), NCAA Sweet 16 – Until Tuesday night Wisconsin moves ahead of Indiana based on association. They swept IU, but Purdue swept them making for a clean 1-2-3 at the moment. I almost view Purdue and Wisky as equal right now, and I certainly want no part of them anymore this year. Should the Badgers get past Michigan State and a potentially tricky trip to Champaign this week they could just be waiting for the Boilers to stumble to grab a share of the Big Ten. The sweet 16 is also very reasonable for them.

  3. (2) Indiana (21-4, 10-2) Projection: Big Ten runner-up, NCAA Sweet 16 – Things are very shaky right now in Bloomington to say the least, but they should clear after this week. If the Hoosiers drop the Purdue game they can likely kiss the Big Ten goodbye. Making the sweet 16 is possible, but they will need a healthy D.J. White. If White and Gordon are both on this team can beat anyone in America, but they have struggled against good teams all year. The coaching situation is certainly a circus.

  4. (4) Michigan State (20-5, 8-4) Projection: 4th place Big Ten finish, NCAA 2nd round – Michigan State is a very good team, but they are really beginning to look like a first weekend victim more and more. Going 0-for-Indiana has eliminated them from the Big Ten title discussion, but they can still ruin Wisconsin and Indiana's hopes. They have more than enough talent and coaching experience to do plenty of damage in the NCAA's.

  5. (5) Ohio State (17-9, 8-5) Projection: 5th place, NCAA team – The Buckeyes were securely in the field for most of the season, but losses to Iowa and Michigan recently have them squarely on the bubble right now. Four of their final five games are against the top four in the conference. Losing all four would put them at 18-13 and 9-9 in the Big Ten. They have a very solid non-conference profile and I'll give them kudos for going to Butler, but they are in severe danger right now and need to win at least one of those four.

  6. (6) Minnesota (15-9, 5-7) Projection: 6th place, NIT team – Last week I said the Gophers had a realistic chance of making the NCAA's but would need to finish strong. That chance is now gone after getting killed by Illinois at home. The Gophers gave Wisconsin a scare in Madison on Saturday, but unless they win their final six games or the Big Ten tournament they are done. Playing at Indiana and at Purdue is too much to ask.

  7. (10) Michigan (8-17, 4-9) Projection: 7th place finish, Big Ten tourney irritant – The overall record is still terrible, but I will give some love to the Wolverines for winning three straight and being more consistent recently than the rest of the bottom. Michigan is playing very well right now and I certainly do not want to go to Ann Arbor on the last day of the regular season with anything on the line. It is entirely possible they could be on a seven game winning streak by them.

  8. (8) Penn State (12-12, 4-8) Projection: 6-7 Big Ten wins, possible NIT – With a one point win at home against Illinois the Nittany Lions swept the Illini and stayed alive for the NIT. Penn State will be at .500 with a split of its final six games, but would need two wins in Indy to get NIT eligible. Can they do it?

  9. (9) Illinois (11-15, 3-10) Projection: Big Ten irritant in both reg. season and tourney – If there is one team at the bottom capable of getting hot for four days in Indianapolis and stealing the automatic bid it is Illinois. They would be solidly in the NCAA's if they could simply hit free throws, so if they figure it out for a week then watch out. I am hoping they at least put it all together for the home game this week against Wisconsin.

  10. (7) Iowa (11-15, 4-9) Projection: at least they aren't Northwestern – With visions of an NIT bid dancing in their heads after an upset of Ohio State the Hawks promptly lost games to Michigan and Minnesota. They threatened Wisconsin, but couldn't pull the upset. Now they have the dreaded curse of being Northwestern's best shot at a win.

  11. (11) Northwestern (7-16, 0-12) Projection: last place. Goal: win a game – Northwestern certainly had my attention around 5:30 Saturday afternoon. It's unfortunate that if you had spotted them a 10 point lead to start each game they would still be winless in conference play. Any win at this point has to be considered a huge bonus, and Iowa on the last day of the season is the best shot.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A nice, quiet, business-like performance

Could we possibly have any better scenario before facing Indiana in what is amounting to a Holy War on Tuesday night? Let's look at what both teams have to face before the game. Purdue has a nice, leisurely bus ride up I-65 after a week of normal practice. We get to get away from all the hype on campus and focus on beating an opponent we should beat. We've had a few days to heal some injuries, relax, and enjoy being in first place. We'll also have a nice delegation of Purdue students and fans following the team up for a rare home away from home atmosphere. We're playing the last place team in the league that has lost every conference game they have played by at least 10 points. As far as late season conference road trips, it doesn't get any easier than this, and a business-like performance should net another win in the standings.

Indiana, however, has had to weather a media firestorm for the past three days, and it is only going to get worse. They have the advantage of being at home through all this mess for three games, but it also means they cannot escape all the media hype descending upon Bloomington. They lost a close game Wednesday to a physical Wisconsin team that put them back in the conference standings, and they still must face another very good and physical Michigan State team that is in desperate need of a win to keep its fleeting conference championship hopes alive. There is a strong possibility that by the time Tuesday night rolls around Indiana will either be fired up to vindicate themselves and have something positive happen, or too beaten down to do anything. As a Purdue fan, you cannot ask for an easier Saturday game or a worse situation for your next opponent to be facing. As a sign of matters getting worse, the Hoosier Report posted what amounts to a smoking gun this morning.

For Purdue though, all we can really do at the moment is focus on Northwestern. If we take our eyes off of them and start looking ahead to Bloomington we very well could lose. We cannot be distracted by the storm clouds forming off to the south. Northwestern is a game we should win easily. Despite that, the game counts the exact same amount in the standings as our previous wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin. I do welcome it as a brief break in a critical stretch of games.

Northwestern so far:

Among the six BCS conferences Northwestern is the only team that has never made the NCAA tournament for basketball. That will not change this year unless they make an absolute miracle run in the Big Ten Tournament. Both their women's and men's teams are currently winless in Big Ten play, and the Wildcats are alone with just Oregon State as far as being a major conference team that is winless in its conference this season. In short, this is bad even by Northwestern standards.

Of the seven wins Northwestern has the best is probably a 65-63 win at Western Michigan in December. That win was the second in a four game mid-December winning streak that is the highlight of the season so far. The other six wins have come against non-D1 Benedictine, Savannah State, Arkansas State, Howard, Chicago State, and Texas Pan-American. Three of those teams (Chicago State, Savannah State, Texas Pan-Am) are the forgotten children of Division 1 as Independents, so it's not as if Northwestern has faced a murderer's row of opponents. Maybe Northwestern's best effort came all the way back in the season opener when Stanford, currently ranked 7th at 20-4, came to Evanston to match SAT scores. The Wildcats played the Cardinal to an 11 point game and were actually tied with 10 minutes to go, so they do have some fight in them.

Who is dangerous for the Wildcats:

Kevin Coble has been a very nice story for the Wildcats. After taking the first nine games of the season off to help is mother battle cancer he has returned to lead the Wildcats in scoring at 15.5 points per game. He's a versatile player at 6'8" 190 lbs. that has had some very big games for the Wildcats. Against Michigan earlier this year He shot 14 for 18 from the field on his way to a 34 point night against the Wolverines, but they still lost by 10. In his last game Ohio State limited him to just four points in 36 minutes. In their Princeton-style offense he is very good at backdoor cuts plus he can shoot the 3-pointer. As a team Northwestern does shoot the 3-pointer very well, hitting just over 36% of their shots from long range.

Guards Craig Moore and Michael Thompson are also averaging in double figures for the Wildcats. Moore is a saavy player that is in his third year in the system at Northwestern, while Thompson is a very promising freshman. Thompson is the team's leader in assists at 4.6 per game. This is key since the style of offense lends itself to high assist totals. Outside of these three guys there isn't a ton of scoring, but that is to be expected since the Wildcats often post low offensive numbers.

What not to fear from Northwestern:

If we cannot outrebound this team we have serious problems. We currently sit 10th in the league in rebounding a 36 per game. As bad as that is, there is still only a 6 rebound between us in 10th place and Michigan State in first place. Sitting in 11th is Northwestern at a dismal 27.3 boards per game. This is a team that has shown consistently that they cannot rebound while we have at least been up and down in that department. Our effort against Michigan State was much better, and we should be dominant on the glass on Saturday. As bad as they are rebounding they are even worse on the offensive glass. At little more than 6 offensive rebounds per game the offer themselves very few second chances.

Surprisingly Northwestern is not the lowest scoring team in the league. Iowa currently holds that honor well behind the Wildcats by more than 7 points per game. Defensively it is another story, however, as Northwestern gives up more points per game than everyone except Michigan. They also have the worst field goal shooting defense in the league, allowing their opponents to hit almost 50% of their shots.

General Outlook:

We have continued to win game after game when we haven't shot the ball well or rebounded well. Neither of those two should be a problem on Saturday. Honestly our only concern should be not falling asleep against the Princeton offense. Chris Kramer said this week that their offense works entirely opposite of our defensive principles, so this could be a cause for concern. While we have been a good defensive team so far, we must hold our concentration against an offense that is built around working the shot clock and waiting for a small lapse before striking. We have not seen anything like this all season and won't until we play them again in Mackey Arena, so we must be on guard.

Of course, the same is true for every other Big Ten team the Wildcats have faced this year and they have been handled easily. This is the type of game where, if we are indeed the best team in the Big Ten, we also should have no problem coming up with the win. We simply are too disciplined and too talented to drop a game like this unless we just completely take the day off. We may struggle early as we figure out their offense, but it should be smooth sailing.

Patience will be a big key in this one, both on the offensive and defensive end. Northwestern is a team that can turn two of our weaknesses (rebounding and shooting) into strengths, so logic dictates that if we can continue being strong in the aspects of our game that have been strong we should win in a walk. We need to have an attitude of taking care of business. This game counts just as much as the Indiana game, and since it is first it needs our total attention. I know coach Painter will stress this, but it is very hard not to look at their record and already chalk up a win.

I am also excited at the return of Scott Martin, and I am glad he gets a game to get his feet back under him before the showdown in Bloomington. It also allows us to get back into our rotations and allow him to work his way back into the flow of the offense. Finally, if things go as expected we should be able to get a few minutes for the bench guys of Reid, Sutor, Riddell, Mocas, and Wohlford. It's not much, but every minute of live action these guys see, no matter how meaningless, is important. You never know when you'll need one of them to do something in a big game even if only for a few possessions. I'd rather have them ready than not. Unless we completely fall apart, we will win big. Purdue 74, Northwestern 58

Finally today, I post a question based on my review of the Michigan State game. Specifically, this regards the comment about Robbie Hummel and the current Boiler basketball team reaching dead hooker in the truck status. I was having lunch today with a good friend and fellow Boilermaker alum who regularly reads the blog here. He posed a question in regards to Drew Brees being allowed two dead hookers. Is he allowed two at one time or two separate incidents, and which is worse? We both agreed two separate incidents is worse and needs more leeway since the person in question wouldn't have learned from the first one. Maybe my friends at Boiled Sports have other thoughts on this, but I propose the following in terms of needing the most leeway to least:

1. Two separate instances of one dead hooker in the trunk (If Purdue wins an NCAA basketball title)
2. One instance of two dead hookers in the trunk (Drew Brees level)
3. One instance of one dead hooker in the trunk (current Purdue basketball level)

Also, would there be different levels right now since it is a team honor? Is Hummel allowed a high class hooker while a player not playing as well, like Crump, can only be allowed a common crack whore? So many tough questions. I hope you had a laugh this Friday afternoon.