As a born-and-bred Midwesterner, sometimes I think the only thing more smash-mouth and physical than Big Ten football is Big Ten basketball. Purdue's last two hoops games provide perfect examples.
Exhibit A: Tuesday night at Wisconsin
Freshman point guard Lewis Jackson is defending in the backcourt and doesn't exactly see Wisconsin's Joe Krabbenhoft preparing to set a big-time screen. In medical terms, we call the resulting hit a concussion.
Exhibit B: Saturday afternoon at home against Michigan
Junior defensive wizard Chris Kramer is hounding Michigan star Manny Harris, which leads Harris to try to clear space for himself. Unfortunately, Kramer's nose was in the way just a little bit.
Now, you can argue whether either of those plays was a foul, or intended to be malicious, or whatever else. For the record, Krabbenhoft's screen was deemed perfectly legal by the officials, while Harris was ejected for the elbow to Kramer's face.
The point of this column isn't really to debate those two specific plays (and as a Purdue hoops fan, you can probably guess I have a slight bias one way or the other!). Instead, these plays just provide a little insight to what kind of physical sacrifice and effort it takes to win in the Big Ten.
And winning in the Big Ten is what the Boilermakers have gotten quite proficient at lately. Purdue is currently enjoying a six-game winning streak, and after starting the season 0-2, they have climbed into a first-place tie with Michigan State in the all-important loss column.
Since Tuesday night's trip to Columbus marks the official halfway point of the conference season, let's take stock of where the boys in Old Gold and Black are at...it's the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The good: Survival instinct
During the string of victories, Purdue has managed to win close games that, to be honest, they had no business winning. Most specifically, the Boilers eked out a two-point victory at Northwestern after trailing for all but a few seconds in the contest.
Next on the list of improbable victories has to be last week's amazing comeback at Wisconsin, where Purdue got up off the mat late to hit three-pointers on back-to-back-to-back possessions and escape with a one-point road triumph. Purdue won its fourth straight game over the Badgers, which is pretty impressive when you consider Wisconsin didn't lose to another team in the Big Ten (besides Purdue) all last season.
In order to have a special season, winning close games is a must. Purdue's gotten its share (and then some) in the first half of the Big Ten schedule.
The bad: Winless start
For how well Purdue is playing right now, it's easy to look back wistfully and wish the team could have another crack against Illinois at home or Penn State in Happy Valley. The Boilers dropped two quick games to start the league schedule and have been digging their way out ever since.
As I wrote a week ago, I think it took them too long to adjust to having the "preseason favorite" target on their back, and it's easy now to wish for 8-0 instead of 6-2. But that's just nit-picking at this point, since Purdue controls its own destiny with two upcoming meetings against co-leader Michigan State. Things could be worse...and that brings us to...
The ugly: Injury report
Where to begin on this one? Robbie Hummel's back spasms have plagued him for two months and show no signs of improvement. Chris Kramer was playing through pain before, and the rearranging of his nose and face Saturday doesn't help anything. Lewis Jackson missed the most recent game with the concussion. (Thank you, Mr. Krabbenhoft...oh wait, I wasn't going to go there).
On Saturday, with Keaton Grant feeling under the weather, Purdue looked like a team that should replace its pregame layup line with a procession of stretchers and wheelchairs.
The good news, as alluded to earlier, is that despite all the tweaks, bruises, ice, and bandages, the Boilermakers are winning basketball games...and looking down at basically all of the Big Ten in the standings.
Hummel's back is obviously the most pressing concern for a team hoping to make noise in March, and my guess is it won't be 100 percent before the season ends. Hopefully, Coach Matt Painter and the athletic training staff can keep No. 4 on the floor as much as possible, even though watching him try to move around the court Saturday was painful to the viewer. With their best player playing (albeit gingerly), Purdue's better. Period.
Looking ahead/what to watch for
Purdue's upcoming two-game road trip to Ohio State and Illinois (both difficult venues) should tell us a lot about the Boilers' title chances. A split is realistic, but getting both (and stretching the winning streak to eight) would put Purdue firmly in the league driver's seat and the national spotlight as the showdowns with the Spartans approach.
With so many injuries and illnesses, depth and bench play will be the key concern for Painter and company down the stretch.