My last edition of "Carrying On About Purdue Basketball," published two weeks ago, found the Boilermakers firmly entrenched in the Big Ten basement.
A quick glance at the standings today, and the Boilers have skyrocketed to a tie for second, only one game behind league leader Michigan State.
Purdue has won four straight conference games, disposing of Wisconsin and Iowa at home, and knocked off Northwestern and Minnesota on the road.
What has been the difference between the 0-2 Purdue team I wrote about last time and the sky-high 4-2 one we see today?
In honor of the current four-game winning streak, allow me to present four main reasons that the Boilers are "movin' on up."
1. KEATON GRANT'S REDISCOVERED OUTSIDE SHOOTING TOUCH
I wrote last time that Grant was in danger of becoming simply a role player for this team because of his inability to hit open three-point jump shots—a specialty for KG last season. However, Grant knocked down two crucial second-half triples in Evanston last week, including one that gave the Boilers their first lead in the final minute of the game.
These daggers from outside seem to give the Boilers' do-everything guard a shot of confidence, and in the two games since, he's kept up the torrid shooting, going 6-for-7 from distance. For a team that tends to rely on its perimeter scorers, the emergence of a weapon that Purdue has counted on since Day One couldn't come at a better time.
2. TEAM-WIDE RENEWED FOCUS AT THE DEFENSIVE END
It's no secret: As Purdue's half-court defense goes, so go the Boilermakers. In the two losses Purdue suffered to open league play, they allowed 69 points a game. In the four wins since, they're giving up 57 points a contest.
A lot of it comes down to focus. I actually attribute much of the early struggles to learning how to be the "hunted" instead of the "hunter."
Purdue's back to doing best what it does best, and that team defensive effort is showing up on the stat sheet.
More importantly, in the win column.
3. GETTING HEALTHY...WELL, HEALTHIER
Chris Kramer and Robbie Hummel have been battling injuries for a while, and the loss of two of Purdue's hardest workers and best players has taken its toll. Kramer and Hummel both missed the game at Penn State, which is the last time Purdue suffered a defeat.
Both players returned for the next game—a critical showdown with and victory over 2007-2008 Big Ten champion, Wisconsin. The spark these team leaders provided in their return has energized the Boilermakers' play—and their title chances.
Neither player is at 100 percent. In fact, both came off the bench last night at Minnesota. For Purdue to have a special season, the team needs to stay healthy.
4. BIG GUYS PLAYING BIG
Sophomore post player JaJuan Johnson continues to improve and dominate for the Boilers. During the four-game winning streak, he's averaging a team-high 15.3 points, including game-winning free throws at Northwestern last week.
In addition to Johnson, backup Nemanja Calasan has also helped the Boilermakers control the glass—an Achilles' heel for this team during the non-conference schedule. Although known for its guard play, Purdue has out rebounded each of its last four opponents, led by JJ, who's snagging almost eight a game in the last couple of weeks.
Things are looking up for Purdue at the moment, especially after last night's big wire-to-wire road win at Minnesota—a top-20 team.
The Boilermakers have momentum. Their outside shots are starting to go down and they've solidified their rotation. Purdie is basically eight deep with Johnson, Calasan, Green, and Hummel up front, and Jackson, Kramer, Moore, and Grant in the back court.
And they're playing championship-level defense. If the defense keeps up, the wins will too.
Look out, Big Ten.
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