Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports
Indiana faces its toughest road test of the season at hate-filled Mackey Arena.
IU has won its first three Big Ten road games, but the trips have been to Iowa (good crowd, but no students), Penn State (nice shooting background comprised of thousands of empty blue seats), and Northwestern (Chicago's Big Ten Team, but not Evanston's on the day the Wildcats played IU). None of those road atmospheres has approached what IU will face when they head to Mackey Arena tonight to play Purdue. As a rivalry game this one always is a big deal, and especially when one or both of the teams is ranked as highly as IU is now. It's also a big game for Purdue's postseason hopes, such as they are. Unquestionably, the Boilermakers are playing better than they were a few weeks ago when they lost to Oregon State and Eastern Michigan. On the other hand, Pomeroy still predicts Purdue to finish with a 15-16/8-10 record, which would leave the Boilers out of the postseason. Winning a game like tonight's would put Purdue on the path toward the NIT and would keep alive Purdue's very slim NCAA hopes.
As we all remember, IU defeated Purdue twice last year, and it's plain that by the records and by other statistics, IU is meaningfully better this season and Purdue is meaningfully worse. Still, I tend to think that this is a slightly less favorable matchup for IU this year than last year. The sole reason for that is AJ Hammons, the freshman seven footer who has played increasingly well as the season has progressed.
Hammons is Purdue's second-leading scorer, and his shooting percentage is very good for a freshman. He also blocks nearly two shots per game. Terone Johnson leads Purdue in scoring, but he still hasn't emerged as a consistently good shooter: he is 38 percent from the field, 32 percent from three, and 59 percent from the line. Johnson, however, like senior guard DJ Byrd, is a streaky shooter with a handful of games in which he has hit a bunch of three pointers. I tend to think Purdue needs one or both of those guys to have a big game to have a chance.
Unlike last season, when Purdue was surprisingly good on offense and surprisingly ordinary on defense, this year the offense has struggled overall (#136 in adjusted offensive efficiency) while quality defense is what has kept Purdue's season alive (#36 in adjusted defensive efficiency). Poor shooting and higher-than-usual turnover numbers aren't a good combination. Purdue has rebounded well at both ends of the court, particularly on offense, where they keep 37 percent of their many, many missed shots. Their defense inside the three point line has been particularly good (41 percent).
I don't have a great feel for how this game is going to turn out. IU is favored and should be favored, but I don't think it takes a pessimist to imagine Cody Zeller in foul trouble, Byrd and Johnson turning it on from three point range, and IU having an off night shooting. It happens, but the Wisconsin loss has taken away IU's margin for dropping a game like this. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that if IU loses this game, there will be no Big Ten title. I think it will be interesting to see how we handle things defensively. On one hand, I'm sure that the zone will be appealing given the challenge that Hammons will present for Zeller. On the other hand, I'm not sure that Purdue can win if they aren't hitting three pointers, and the zone gave MSU plenty of looks.
IU's rare wins at Mackey Arena have typically come in seasons in which IU was really good, Purdue was really bad, or both (last season was an exception). It isn't going to be a pretty game, but hopefully at this time tomorrow we will be talking about IU's first back-to-back wins there since 2005-06.