Showdown In West Lafayette

Tomorrow afternoon two teams will play a game that will go a long way toward deciding who will be the regular season Big Ten basketball champion.  Ohio State travels to West Lafayette to take on the Purdue Boilermakers.

A lot is on the line.  The Buckeyes are 12-1 in the conference and have a two-game lead over second-place Purdue.  In their last outing, the Boilermakers won a huge home game against Wisconsin to take sole possession of second place.  They now look to topple the Buckeyes and pull within one game of the Big Ten lead.  They also will be looking for some revenge against Ohio State, which crushed Purdue 87-64 when the teams matched up earlier this season at Value City Arena.

The last game between these two teams is meaningless.  It was one of those magical games where everything went right for Ohio State and everything went wrong for Purdue.  (I have the game DVR’d and will probably not erase it for months; it is too much fun to watch.)  The rematch undoubtedly will be different.  Mackey Arena is one of the toughest venues in the Big Ten, and this year Purdue is undefeated at home against Big Ten opponents.  In the first game between these teams, JaJuan Johnson played well and scored 22 points, but he was almost a one-man team.  The Buckeyes managed to marginalize Purdue’s excellent shooting guard E’Twaun Moore and neutralize the Boilermakers’ waterbug-quick point guard, Lewis Jackson.  Aaron Craft had a breakout game for the Buckeyes, playing hard-as-nails defense and blowing past the Boilermakers’ defense for some embarrassingly easy layups.

Craft and the Buckeyes won’t surprise Purdue this time.  Matt Painter is one of the best coaches in the Big Ten and he will have the Boilermakers ready for this game.  Moore and Jackson, in particular, will be pumped for a chance to redeem themselves against the Buckeyes.  I expect another very difficult road test against a well-coached opponent that will be playing with a lot of talent and a lot of pride.

Big Game In The Big Ten

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.

The Big Ten Basketball Meat Grinder

A lot of people have been saying that the Big Ten is the strongest basketball conference in the country this year, and it is beginning to look like they might be right.  Five games into the conference schedule (six for Minnesota, Northwestern, and Penn State), it looks like the Big Ten has a number of very good teams, lots of wonderful players, and a conference race that is and will continue to be up for grabs.  This is a conference where anything can happen on any given night of rugged Big Ten play.

The Buckeyes sit atop the standings at 5-0, a record that includes three invaluable road wins.  Ohio State has not been blowing its opponents out of the gym, however.  In its last four games Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, and Penn State have taken the Buckeyes down to the wire, and we can expect more of the same as opponents develop ways to defend against Ohio State’s inside-outside game.  Saturday’s game against Penn State was a good example.  The Buckeyes pulled out to a ten-point lead, Penn State went to a zone that took Ohio State out of its game, and it took some last-second heroics from Jared Sullinger to ensure the victory.  It is clear that Penn State — which has been one of the surprises of the conference this year, having already upset Michigan State and Illinois — has a very good, well-coached team, led by senior guard Talor Battle and other experienced players.  They will give other teams fits.

Right behind the Buckeyes, at 4-1, are Michigan State and Purdue.  Michigan State has not been overwhelming — it needed overtime to win its last two home games, against Wisconsin and Northwestern — but it has found a way to win, and the Spartans always seem to be in the thick of the conference race under their great coach, Tom Izzo.  Purdue may have the best one-two combination in the conference in splendid senior center JaJuan Johnson and senior guard E’Twaun Moore and won its first four conference games handily before losing at Minnesota.  The always-tough Wisconsin Badgers, with their deliberate offense, and athletic Illinois are 3-2, the surprising Nittany Lions and the huge Minnesota Golden Gophers are 3-3, and spunky Northwestern stands at 2-4.  Indiana and Michigan, at 1-4, and Iowa, still winless, round out the conference — but don’t think they aren’t putting up a fight.  Michigan and Iowa both played well in their home games against the Buckeyes and gave Ohio State all it could handle.

This may be the best and deepest the Big Ten has ever been in basketball — and that is saying something.  The upcoming games where the top teams try to knock each other off, in the kind of bruising battles you expect in the Big Ten, should be epic.