Three games to Big Ten glory.
Yes, this has nothing to do with Indiana.
For Purdue, it’s simple. Win out and the championship is clinched. That would be a record 23 (one more than the rival Hoosiers) Big Ten titles if you’re counting, and you’d better believe Boiler Nation is counting.
Thanks to Ohio State’s Thursday night upset of No. 16 Wisconsin, the No. 14 Boilers are in Big Ten control with three games to play. They are 12-3 in the conference, one game ahead of Wisconsin, two ahead of Maryland, and three over Michigan State, Northwestern and Minnesota.
Technically, all six of those teams still have a chance, and the fact that it includes Northwestern has generated national buzz. The Wildcats (20-8 overall, 9-6 in the Big Ten) have never made the NCAA tourney. They are positioned to do so, but losses in two of their last three games, and four of their last six, including two to struggling Illinois, ratchets up the stakes for their Saturday night game at Indiana.
Northwestern has already beaten the Hoosiers, by a 68-55 score in Evanston last month. It leads the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio, has the conference’s second stingiest defense, allowing 64.8 points, and needs one more win to set a school regular-season record.
But that’s a sideshow to the main event, which is this is a two-team race — Purdue and Wisconsin.
The Boilers (23-5 overall) have the edge over the Badgers (22-6) because they won the only regular season meeting between the teams, 66-55 at Mackey Arena in early January.
Purdue has won six straight games, and nine of 10. Since an infuriating loss at Nebraska, the Boilers have ratcheted up the shooting (it connects 43.1 percent on three-pointers in eight true road games) and turned rugged enough on defense to make a big impression, especially on Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
“They might be playing the most consistent ball, not only in the Big Ten, but in the country,” he says. “I like the way they have an inside-outside threat. Their defense is getting better. The last four to five games they’re starting to ramp that up. They are playing even harder.
“Other than not having a ton of depth …”
Purdue uses an eight-player rotation, which is often really seven. Because of rules changes, coach Matt Painter has dialed back on the in-your-face, physical defense the Boilers are known for. The goal is now more about making opponents shoot contested shots over Purdue defenders.
“When Purdue gives up 40-some percent (to an opponent),” Izzo says, “that’s an oddity. In the last four to five games, they’re down in the 30s again. That’s more Purdue style. It’s physical in there.”
It’s especially physical inside while dealing with 7-2 Isaac Haas and 6-8 Caleb Swanigan.
“Against those two guys,” Izzo says, “I just pray. I tell (our guys) to force (Haas and Swanigan) out. I think they force you down. We’re just not big and strong enough.
“If they defend like that with the way they’re shooting …”
The Big Ten has to generate its own wow factor because its showing against the teams in the NCAA tourney selection committee’s early top 16 seeds was a disaster.
Not a single Big Ten team made that top 16, which tells you what the committee thinks of the conference this season.
The No. 1 reason? A really bad non-conference showing.
Specifically, the league went just 2-20 against those top 16 seeds. The only wins were by Indiana. That was back in November, when all things seemed possible for the Hoosiers, before injuries, lack of mental toughness and a refusal to do the simple things that don’t require elite talent — like block out or make smart passes, especially at crunch time — ruined their season.
How ruined is it? IU is 15-13 overall, 5-10 in the Big Ten and in 13th place in the conference standings, ahead of only Rutgers.
Saturday night is the Hoosiers' best shot at a victory before the NCAA tourney, and they’ll try it while honoring swingman Collin Hartman as the only senior for Senior Night. He's been out for the season with a knee injury. He has the option of taking a redshirt ad coming back, although nothing is decided at the moment.
As far as the Big Ten and the big picture, bad losses such as Florida Atlantic over Ohio State, Gardner-Webb over Nebraska, Northeastern over Michigan State and Winthrop over Illinois, generate plenty of reasons to bad mouth the Big Ten.
Some have taken advantage
When struggling Ohio State manhandles Wisconsin, well, parity is fine if you like balance, but if you want good NCAA tourney seeds that lead to deep NCAA tourney runs, you need more dominance.
You need, in fact, the Big Ten’s best teams winning as much as possible these next two weeks.
And then the shot at real glory begins.
UP NEXT: Northwestern at Indiana
TIPOFF: 8 p.m., Saturday
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