After Purdue's furious 13-0 start, including a surprisingly difficult win over projected Big Ten cellar-dweller Iowa, there weren't too many concerns being bandied about Boiler Nation regarding Purdue's chances of a Big Ten regular-season or tournament title.
There certainly are a few now. The prospective Final Four participants are quickly being exposed by a Fatal Four-pack of on-court issues.
1. On Guard?
In successive losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State, Purdue's vaunted defense has struggled to prevent opposing guards from imposing their will.
Wisconsin's trio of Jason Bohannon, Trevon Hughes, and Jordan Taylor were able to combine for 57 points on 16-of-24 shooting. Three nights later, Ohio State's Evan Turner and William Buford were allowed to score 51 points, shooting 18-of-31 from the floor.
In both games the Boilers' aggressiveness had to be tempered down due to foul trouble. Against Wisconsin, Keaton Grant, E'Twaun Moore, and Kelsey Barlow all ended the game with four fouls. On Tuesday night at Mackey Arena, defensive stopper Chris Kramer was limited to only 15 minutes, committing four fouls in that time.
Whether Kramer was on the floor or not, Evan Turner simply took over the Ohio State game, reminding all Big Ten observers that despite missing six games with a fracture in his back, he may still be a favorite for National Player of the Year, let alone Big Ten MVP.
2. Losing the Handle
Questions over whether Purdue would miss the quickness and ballhandling skills of Lewis Jackson were beginning to dissipate as the Boilers made their undefeated run. When the Boilers tormented Minnesota's backcourt trio of Al Nolen, Lawrence Westbrook, and Blake Hoffarber to the tune of seven turnovers, seven fouls, and 5-of-23 shooting, it seemed like the trio of Kramer, Grant, and Barlow were validated as a point guard committee.
Against Ohio State, however, the three combined for 11 turnovers, eight fouls, and only 3-for-10 shooting. Several times, Barlow picked up his dribble in the backcourt in the face of the pressure defense that the Buckeyes sprung with seven minutes remaining.
Barlow's back-to-back turnovers took an already-shaky seven-point lead and whittled it down to three with 3:15 to go, and the desperation could be seen and felt coming off the Boilermakers.
3. Three's a Crowd?
When Purdue has been tested this season, their veteran trio of Moore, Robbie Hummel, and JaJuan Johnson have been the guys to bail out their teammates.
Against Wisconsin, Johnson's miserable 1-for-7 free throw shooting could be pointed to as a huge reason for the loss. Against the Buckeyes, either Johnson's teammates did not want to risk him being sent to the line any more or Dallas Lauderdale and Kyle Madsen played that strong of defense. Either way, JJ was a non-factor.
Aside from a fast break dunk where he beat everyone down the floor, Johnson did not attempt a field goal in the final 13:45. He only attempted five shots all night, an unacceptable figure for a player who recorded 41 points against good West Virginia and Minnesota teams.
Hummel's first-half heroics (a school-record-tying eight three-pointers and 29 total points) were a distant memory as soon as Ohio State coach Thad Matta switched David Lighty on to him. Robbie saw only five shots in the final 16 minutes and missed them all. The gruesomely dislocated finger that briefly sent him to the locker room didn't help either.
As for Moore, he made a valiant effort to singlehandedly keep Purdue in the Wisconsin game, but against Ohio State, he was as lost as anyone. In the final 2:04 of Tuesday's game, Moore missed the front end of a crucial one-and-one with the game tied at 62 and committed two fouls on Turner, which turned into four eventual game-winning free throws.
When one of the Boilers' Big Three is able to produce, they will likely have a hard time staying in games. When none of them are producing, it can lead to some scary nights.
4. Out of Their Depth?
Behind the junior trio, senior Keaton Grant was expected to be a big contributor, especially after the loss of Lewis Jackson. In addition, it was hoped that the freshman-laden bench would be a little bit toughened up by the time conference play began.
Grant's 11 points per game, 43 percent field-goal shooting and 44 percent three-point shooting from 2007-08 seem like a lifetime ago. This season, he's struggled to a 6.3 PPG average, shooting a sickly 8-of-41 from three-point range on the year, and shooting only 3-for-12 overall in the last three games. In those last three games, he's recorded as many fouls (10) as points.
Unfortunately there aren't many better options coming up behind him. While Barlow can provide an occasional spark, he can just as often land himself in immediate foul trouble. Like Grant, Barlow has recorded 10 points and 10 fouls in the last three games, also adding five turnovers against Ohio State.
Ryne Smith has managed to avoid extensive turnover or foul trouble, but he's shooting a mere 37 percent from the floor for the season, occasionally launching some very ill-advised shots.
At least those two can still claim to be seeing playing time. D.J. Byrd hasn't played more than 10 minutes in a game since Dec. 22 against SIU-Edwardsville. Likewise Patrick Bade, who's seen a total of 10 minutes in 2010 with the Boilers now four games into their Big 10 schedule.
It's little wonder that Hummel, Moore, and Johnson are fading in second-half action, as coach Matt Painter's bench is beginning to get alarmingly short.
Purdue's expectations at 14-0 included a trip down I-65 to Indianapolis at the end of March. Unless these four issues can be dealt with and dealt with quickly, the Fatal Four will certainly keep the Boilers from the Final Four, derailing what looked to be Purdue's best chance at glory since 1994.
For more from Scott Henry, including the Current Exclusive "Icarus Kiffin Is Flying A Little Too Close to the Sun," check out Starr*Rated .
Follow Scott on Twitter at http://twitter.com/4QuartersRadio .