WEST LAFAYETTE — If you believe junior center Isaac Haas, Purdue is doing this season what it should have done the last one:
Win when it matters.
Five straight victories, and winning eight of nine, have a way of boosting a team, and you’d better believe these No. 14 Boilers are getting a big boost, with this caveat – it ain’t over.
“We've had confidence throughout the year," Haas said. "We knew we were one of the best teams in the Big Ten, if not the best team. We just had to play our game, play Purdue basketball the way we know how to play it. That's honestly all it is. When we're locked in and do what we need to do, we have games where we're beating people by 18 or more.
"We didn't exactly have that last year. We let some cockiness get to us and we dropped one here and there, and it ultimately cost us the Big Ten title in the regular season. But that's not going to happen this year."
Purdue is 22-5 overall and 11-3 in the Big Ten. It shares the conference lead with No. 16 Wisconsin, but has the tie breaker edge, which means if it wins out, it gets the No. 1 seed in next month’s Big Ten tourney in Washington D.C. no matter what the Badgers do.
The next challenge — win at Penn State (14-13, 6-8) Tuesday night.
A Big Ten title has been a goal since the beginning of the season, but prospects were uncertain a couple of weeks ago after a surprising loss at Nebraska followed a surprising loss at Iowa (which Purdue had beaten by 22 points two weeks earlier in Mackey Arena) which came after a surprising overtime home loss to Minnesota.
All during that stretch, Wisconsin kept winning and leading.
Then came Purdue’s surge, along with consecutive Badger losses.
Now the Boilers control their destiny.
“We kept our confidence (after Nebraska loss),” forward Vince Edwards said. “We know crazy things happen in this league. I kept telling the guys we’re still here, right where we want to be. I still had confidence. We still had confidence.
“Being first is huge, but we have to focus on one game at a time. We know what we need to do to win a championship – we have to win.”
Edwards is doing his part. The 6-8 junior had 12 points in Saturday’s victory over Michigan State, surpassing 1,000 career points along the way. He’s the 50th Boiler to do that.
“It’s shocking,” he said. “Being able to join some of the big names is a huge accomplishment. I’m just blessed to be in that category.”
Edwards was not a superstar recruit coming out of Ohio. He was just a three-star prospect by Rivals.com and Scout.com, two national Internet recruiting services. But coach Matt Painter thought he was a perfect fit for the Boilers.
“Just his overall versatility. He can play a couple of different positions. He can guard different people and do a lot of little things. He can dribble, pass and shoot. He has good size. He’s a skill guy.
“He came somewhere where he was needed. A lot of times recruits miss that piece of it. If you’re talented and good enough to play right way, go where you’re needed. Why wait? We definitely needed him and he’s had a great career.”
So has sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan, who needs one rebound to set the school single-season record. He and Joe Barry Carroll are tied with 352.
He’s coming off a 24-point, 15-rebound, five-assist game against Michigan State. He has 23 double-doubles this season, three away from the Big Ten record and eight from the NCAA record. In his last seven games, he’s averaged 14.9 rebounds.
In other words, the former Homestead standout is playing his best when it matters most.
“It’s big to get an individual (accomplishment) like that,” he said, “but right now we’re just trying to win a Big Ten championship.”
Trying resumes against Penn State. Purdue will try to punish the Nittany Lions with its size, as it does against everybody. When you have the 6-8 Swanigan and the 7-2 Haas, to not do so would be, well, dumb.
"It's just how we play," Swanigan said. "We feed the ball inside and we don't go up to get fouled; we go up to score the ball. It's hard to play in the post, the hardest place to play defense because you're already close to the basket and we try to take advantage of that."
That’s exactly what Painter wants to hear.
“Sometimes we play to get fouled,” he said. “You can’t play that way. You have to try to be aggressive and score.”
As far as Penn State, overlook the Nittany Lions at your own risk. They have beaten a pair of ranked teams in Maryland and Minnesota. They are coming off an 82-66 loss at Nebraska.
Guard Tony Carr leads by averaging 12.6 points and 3.9 assists. Forward Lamar Stevens averages 12.3 points and 5.7 rebounds. Guard Shep Garner averages 12.1 points. Forward Payton Banks averages 11.4 points. Forward Mike Watkins averages 9.4 points and a team-leading 8.0 rebounds.
That’s plenty for the Boilers to think about without getting distracted by Big Ten title talk.
“We have to keep our focus on Penn State,” Painter said. “That’s all we need to worry about. Our guys aren’t fools. They have a television. Over-stating things (about the conference race) doesn’t help.”
UP NEXT: Purdue at Penn State
TIPOFF: 6 p.m., Tuesday
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