With Michigan's recent road win over Minnesota, the Wolverines got back on track toward achieving their Big Ten and season goals. Michigan has only competed in five Big Ten games so far this season, but they currently hold a 4-1 record in conference play, are only a 1/2 game out of 1st place, and have jumped to the top of many conference power rankings. However, even with that momentum, every conference game is still important. Tonight, Michigan will tip-off against Purdue at home in the first of two regular season match-ups with the Boilermakers. Last year, Michigan and Purdue split their two regular season head-to-head games and Purdue ended up spoiling Michigan's Senior Day and what would have been an undefeated home record for the Wolverines.
Matt Painter's Boilermakers have been on a downward slide for three seasons now.
The Enemy: Matt Painter has built a solid program in West Lafayette. Purdue has made the NCAA Tournament in every season except one under Painter and have made the tourney in each of the last six seasons. Despite this, Purdue has experienced a bit of a drop-off in recent years. During the 2009-2010 season, the Boilermakers won 29 games, the Big Ten regular season title, and made it to the Sweet Sixteen. The next year, they won three fewer games and finished 2nd in the conference. They followed that up last season by winning four fewer games and finishing 6th in the Big Ten. Neither of these seasons should be labeled as a "failure", but the unfortunate news for Boilermaker fans is that this trend appears to have continued into this season.
Purdue began their season on less than favorable terms. They lost two of their most significant players in Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson and were looking primarily at new recruits to replace their contributions. They've brought in some talent, but as most coaches will say, nothing is guaranteed in recruiting. Purdue lacked chemistry early and have struggled offensively all season. They rank #61 in KenPom but are just #138 in adjusted offense and rank 10th in the Big Ten in points per possession. These issues led to a lot of lost production and some early season losses including an embarrassing loss to Eastern Michigan on the road. In fact, before entering Big Ten play, Purdue only had a 6-6 record.
Of course, the Boilermakers have improved since then, even if only slightly. Part of this improvement can be seen in their points per possession. They are 10th in the Big Ten over the season, but are 7th in the conference during Big Ten play and have essentially carried the same efficiency rate, even after playing some good defensive teams in Michigan State and Ohio State. Purdue is still a long way off from the top, but a good example of their improvement was in their recent blowout of West Virginia. The Mountaineers are no powerhouse this year, but earlier in the season, Purdue could have easily lost this game or played it down to the wire.
Purdue may not be an elite team, but they still have talented players on their roster. The key players so far this year have probably been Terone Johnson, D.J. Byrd, and A.J. Hammons. Johnson and Byrd are experienced players, with Johnson being good on the perimeter, leading the team in scoring with 13.3 ppg, 2nd in assists with 3.1 apg, and is one of the team's best 3 pt shooters. Byrd has been the anchor for the Boilermakers in several moments this year, including the upset of Illinois, and is averaging 10.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. Unlike Johnson and Byrd, Hammons is a freshman that has been forced to learn quickly. He still isn't completely developed yet, but he has been getting heavy minutes in recent games, which has allowed him to lead the team in rebounding (6.3 rpg) and blocks (2.1 bpg) this year.
Outside of these three, Purdue has relied on several other players to carry the load. Freshman Ronnie Johnson (younger brother of Terone) has been solid. He still makes a lot of mistakes, but 9.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game isn't bad for a first year player. Anthony Johnson has also gotten solid playing time. He hasn't put up big numbers (6.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg), but over 20 minutes a game is significant. Overall, Purdue is a team that struggles offensively, but gets the job done on defense. They are improving with experience, but still aren't quite where they need to be for serious Big Ten contention.
Keys To The Game: There are several big things to watch for in this one, but perhaps the most interesting will be about how Purdue attempts to defend Trey Burke. Ronnie Johnson has done a decent job for a freshman, but it seems unlikely that he will be able to hold up defensively on Burke. Perhaps Purdue moves Terone Johnson over on Burke, but they will have to attempt to clog the lane and hope for some turnovers. Unfortunately, the Boilermakers are dead last in the conference in steals this year, which is not a good sign for facing Burke, who averages less than 2 turnovers per game.
Along with slowing down Burke, Purdue is going to need a big performance inside the paint to have a chance against the Wolverines. The most likely candidate to have a breakout game is A.J. Hammons. Hammons has played at least 20 minutes in every game but one since November 16th and has been making a difference on the glass and in scoring. Controlling him will be key for the Wolverines. Purdue should have the firepower to keep it close, but if the Wolverines are able to get a run or two on Purdue, the Boilermakers probably just won't have enough to hang with them.
Players To Watch: The big player to watch in this one will be Trey Burke. Not only is he having an outstanding season, but Purdue has had some struggles against good point guards in Big Ten play so far this season. Craft and Paul scored 15 points each and although Purdue held Appling to 6 points, he still racked up 8 assists. Burke has been better than any of these other point guards and Purdue doesn't have a guy that can guard him one-on-one. Also, with weak performances recently from Creighton's Doug McDermott and Duke's Mason Plumlee recently, this could be a game for Burke to take the lead in the Player of the Year contest. Also watch Mitch McGary. Purdue has a solid frontcourt with a lot of talent that could cause some defensive problems for Michigan. McGary has been improving, but he will have a big challenge in stopping Hammons.
Prediction: Michigan by 15
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