The Purdue Boilermakers are one of the nation's hottest basketball teams after posting their eighth straight conference win against the Ohio State Buckeyes, 60-57, on Wednesday night. The thrilling victory marked the Boilers' fourth win against a Top-10 foe this year, their first-ever triumph at OSU's Value City Arena, and keeps them even with the Michigan State Spartans in the all-important loss column of the Big Ten standings.
Coach Matt Painter's team has righted the ship after an early three-game league losing streak and the Boilermakers finally seem to be clicking on all cylinders. With the stretch run of the 2009-10 schedule upon us, here are five reasons why Purdue should secure its first regular-season league championship since 1996.
1. JaJuan Johnson has developed into the league's best post player.
Painter has been saying since JaJuan Johnson's freshman year that his young center would be an All-Big Ten player before his Purdue career concluded. Painter's prophetic words came true last season, as the then-sophomore received First Team honors. Johnson's scoring and rebounding averages have improved every season, and he's now pouring in over 15 points a game and pulling down seven rebounds per night.
Purdue's only losses this year (all during a three-game streak in January) were, not coincidentally, some of Johnson's worst outings of the 2009-10 campaign. Most notably, the loss at Northwestern last month (in which the junior played only 18 minutes due to foul trouble) proved how much the Boilermakers lean on their dominating post.
Since that low point, Johnson has come on strong, racking up 19 points in a surprise win at Michigan State last week and tallying a team-high 24 in Columbus Wednesday. The mark of a big-time player is posting huge numbers in big-time games, and JJ's back-to-back impressive showings against Top-10 teams (in hostile venues, no less) bode well for Purdue's championship hopes.
2. E'Twaun Moore is willing to take (and expected to make) the big shots.
Every great team has a go-to player that can make things happen in the clutch. Translation: If your favorite team doesn't know who's supposed to have the ball in their hands with the game on the line, your favorite team isn't going to win a trophy. Sorry, that's just the way it is.
As Purdue's veteran team has posted big win after big win, one common thread has emerged: The Boilermakers look to E'Twaun Moore to make critical shots when they're needed most.
No stretch of basketball illustrated this more than last week in East Lansing, when Purdue's double-digit lead had nearly evaporated late in the second half. The Spartans had knocked down a big three-pointer, the crowd was roaring, the lead was a single possession for the first time in forever (65-62), and the visitors needed a timeout.
When play resumed, Moore calmly elevated for a dagger three-pointer. Swish. Lead doubled. Crowd quieted.
Next trip down, E'Twaun found a teammate for an easy lay-in.
After another defensive stop, Moore used a ball screen to get into the lane and finish with a textbook finger-roll.
Just like that, the lead was back in double figures and the Boilermakers had turned the tide.
Because E'Twaun Moore has the experience of an upperclassman and the playmaking skills of a big-time shooting guard, Purdue is in position to begin dreaming of a brand-new banner for Mackey Arena.
3. Robbie Hummel is consistently (and sometimes quietly) filling the stat sheet.
Although he's rarely flashy or spectacular (outside of a memorable 29-point half against Ohio State in a losing cause), Purdue forward Robbie Hummel has been doing all the little things necessary to propel his team toward the top of the conference standings. A First Team All-Big Ten selection as a freshman and the Most Outstanding Player of the 2009 Big Ten Tournament, Hummel has been considered one of the league's premier talents since he first donned a Purdue uniform.
This winter, despite a relative lack of fanfare, Hummel is contributing 15.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, and a stellar free throw percentage (89.1%) to the Boilermaker Express. When Johnson draws extra attention inside, Hummel is more than capable of creating offense for the Old Gold and Black with a pure three-point stroke or an always-dangerous mid-range pull-up jumper.
The versatility Hummel provides will undoubtedly prove valuable as the Boilermakers try to secure the Big Ten crown over the next few weeks.
4. The Boilers' balance and depth have improved through the season.
When Purdue was suffering through a three-game losing streak, Lewis Jackson was wearing a walking boot, John Hart was such an afterthought his name didn't even get in the scorebook, and the Boilermakers looked like the "Robbie Hummel and That's All" show.
(Who will forget Matt Painter telling reporters last month, "I'd like to start E'Twaun Moore, E'Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel, Robbie Hummel, and Robbie Hummel... no one else deserves to start."?)
Fast-forward to mid-February and the Boilers' coach is undoubtedly singing a different tune. Kelsey Barlow has cracked the starting lineup (a remarkable feat for a first-year player on a veteran ballclub), Jackson is shaking off the rust and working back into form, Hart has stepped up big to propel Purdue to road victories over the Illini and Spartans, and Keaton Grant appears to finally be on the road to re-discovering his missing touch from the perimeter (he scored 13 points off the bench to spark his squad in Tuesday's victory over the Buckeyes).
In other words, the Big Three (juniors Johnson, Moore, and Hummel) finally have some help. While last year's Sweet Sixteen team was basically six players deep (with Grant, Jackson, and Chris Kramer filling out the limited rotation), this edition of the Boilermakers has a few more playmakers at its disposal. Painter's newfound depth was obvious last night, as the Purdue coach used eight different players for at least eight minutes.
Conversely, Ohio State's Thad Matta only played one substitute the entire game!
Bottom line: Painter has intentionally given his younger guys experience early in the season (even at the risk of losing a game or two during the non-conference slate). The development of Barlow and Hart, among others, could help that decision pay off in spades down the stretch of the Big Ten grind.
5. The schedule, statistics, and history are all on Purdue's side.
While most college basketball fans are well aware of the recent exploits of Johnson, Moore, and Hummel (after all, much has been made of the junior trio's desire to win a Big Ten regular-season title and hopefully advance to a hometown Final Four in nearby Indianapolis next month), what's not as well known is that through history, Purdue University and Big Ten championship seasons have always gone hand in hand.
The Boilermakers have won 21 Big Ten titles in men's basketball, more than any other program in conference history. Purdue has enjoyed success against every team in the conference, boasting a winning record in the all-time series against each of the other ten league schools.
Despite the historic domination, however, the Boilers have gone 14 years without a regular-season league crown, a string that seems due to end. Throw in the fact that this has unquestionably been a season full of streak-ending performances for Painter's team—Purdue snapped long losing skids in East Lansing, Bloomington, and Columbus in the last two weeks alone—and the outcome of the 2010 Big Ten race seems even easier to predict.
With history on their side, three of the league's top 11 scorers in their lineup, and a favorable schedule the rest of the way (the only upper division teams Purdue has yet to face, Illinois and Michigan State, both come to West Lafayette), the stars seem aligned for the Boilermakers to earn yet another Big Ten championship in 2010.