As "Real" Big Ten Games Loom, Purdue Needs To Keep Chips On Shoulders

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2010

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 19:  Head coach Matt Painter of the Purdue Boilermakers reacts in the first half while taking on the Northern Iowa Panthers during the first round of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at the Rose Garden on March 19, 2009 in Portland, Oregon.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Following the Purdue Boilermakers' conference opener against Iowa on December 29, coach Matt Painter had all the right things to say.

"Our league, it's stacked, and we talked to our guys about how every single night, it's going to be tough," Painter said.  "Any time you can win on the road in the Big Ten, it's an accomplishment."

Purdue's 67-56 win was highly in doubt until midway through the second half, when the Boilers held a mere four-point lead.  Much like the victory at Alabama, Purdue's defense had to flip a switch and ignite a large run to put the game away.

The Boilers appeared to be looking ahead to the New Year's Day heavyweight clash at Mackey Arena against West Virginia, and in that one, there was little doubt that Purdue had come to play.  The Mountaineers' five-forward lineup had few answers for JaJuan Johnson (25 points, 10 rebounds) inside, and mishandled the ball to the tune of 17 turnovers on the way to a 77-62 defeat.

That dominant performance was exactly what Boiler fans have been hoping for in the face of continued skepticism about their actual ability level.

ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd's pre-Christmas comments about Purdue's lack of "great," or NBA-caliber, players was the first volley.

It's not that Cowherd was all that far off the mark.  Really, only the most delusional Boilermaker fan can look at Robbie Hummel or E'Twaun Moore and claim that either will step in and be an immediate NBA All-Star. 

The point, however, is that it's hard for a team that relies on rugged defense to get respect nationally unless there's that one offensive player who looms as a 25-point threat every night, or the guy who gets on all the highlight reels to make the casual fan say "ooh" and "aah."

At various times this season, Hummel, Moore, and Johnson have each put the team on his back and said "Follow me, boys."  Having three veterans who can shoulder the load should engender much more confidence than teams who may be relying on one gifted freshman.

The worst thing the Boilermakers can do at any point during the Big Ten conference schedule is to remember that they were 13-0 and ranked No. 4 in the nation.  Their defense is a function of a scrappy underdog attitude, and only that kind of attitude is likely to get this team as deep into the NCAA Tournament as they want to go.

The bulletin board material can be found all over Bleacher Report:

Mike Kline: "I'm not sure how long they can keep it up..."

Sam Oleson: "I think Michigan State is better than Purdue."

Dan Adams: "It was a prime spot for a let down game on the part of the Mountaineers and they are not as bad as they played against Purdue. The question left unanswered is, how good are the Purdue Boilermakers?"

Fans of Minnesota, who the Boilers play Tuesday night, this Saturday's opponent Wisconsin, and preseason Big Ten favorite Michigan State are all allowing themselves an air of hope that Purdue is a bit of a mirage.

The longer the Boilers can remind themselves that few people have a great understanding of just how they're beating teams like Tennessee, Wake Forest, and West Virginia, the better their chances will be to score a high seed and multiple victories in March...

...not to mention their chances to leave fans of teams that do have "NBA-caliber" talent scratching their heads and searching for excuses.

For more from Scott Henry, including the new exclusive "To Gil, From Tiger," check out Starr*Rated .