It’s still January, and there is more than a month to go in the Big Ten regular season. Nevertheless, a huge game looms tomorrow night, when Purdue visits Ohio State. Purdue is 6-1 in the Big Ten and is ranked no. 12 nationally. The Buckeyes are 7-0 and ranked no. 1. If the Buckeyes can win, they will open up a two-game lead in the race for the conference title. If the Boilermakers prevail, they bring Ohio State back to the pack and tie the Buckeyes for the conference lead. Obviously, every other team in the Big Ten will be rooting hard for Purdue.
Although Ohio State has played some tough opponents this year — Saturday’s game against Illinois comes immediately the mind — Purdue probably has the best tandem of players Ohio State will face this year in E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson. Together they average almost 40 points a game. Moore is a triple threat who can score, rebound, and dish out assists. Johnson leads the Boilermakers in scoring and rebounding and is an excellent shot-blocker. Purdue is well coached and plays a disciplined game that features tough defense. Imagine how good these guys would be if star Robbie Hummel hadn’t suffered a season-ending injury!
There will be lots of good matchups between skilled players in this game, but the battle in the paint will be especially interesting. Freshman Jared Sullinger played his best game of the year against Illinois, but senior Johnson presents a huge challenge at both ends of the floor. Can Sullinger use his big body to get position on the blocks against the spindly but crafty Johnson, and if so can the Buckeyes get him the ball? I also expect the Boilermakers to try to make Sullinger work harder on defense, both with Johnson and with other players, like Moore, looking to penetrate the lane. The Buckeyes will need to play stout perimeter defense to help keep Sullinger out of foul trouble.
Tomorrow’s game is not going to be the final word on who will win the Big Ten — there are far too many games left for that — but it will be an opportunity for the Buckeyes to demonstrate whether they truly deserve their no. 1 ranking. Let’s hope the Buckeye Nation turns out for the game in force, loud and proud.