WEST LAFAYETTE – Purdue has four games remaining on its Big Ten schedule. Four games to prove that the Boilermakers belong in the NCAA Tournament. After dropping three straight, including the last two on the road, Purdue returns to Mackey Arena for three of its final four games, starting with today's matchup against Michigan. It's probably an exaggeration to say that the game against the Wolverines is a must-win, but it's definitely a "would-be-nice-to-win". If the Boilers lose today, they will likely need to win their last three games, including a road matchup at Iowa, plus at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament to feel safe on Selection Sunday. Much better to get this win against the Wolverines and give themselves at least some margin for error the rest of the way.
Michigan comes in as one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten, winners of four straight by an average of 16.5 points, including wins over Michigan State and Rutgers. The win over the Scarlet Knights came at Rutgers Athletic Center, snapping the Knights' 17-game home winning streak to start the season. The Wolverines likely gained some confidence from that win and might not be as intimidated by the atmosphere at Mackey Arena as some other teams would be. Still, Purdue has recent history on its side today. The Boilermakers lost their last home game, a 88-76 defeat against Penn State, and they haven't lost two straight at Mackey since March 2014.
Purdue's defense will have to be in top form today to shut down the Wolverines, who are averaging 76.3 points during their win streak. The offense runs through point guard Zavier Simpson, the leading assist man in the country at 8 per game. He had 22 points and nine assists the first time these teams met and got into the lane whenever he wanted, going 8 for 8 from 2-point range. He is deadly when he gets in the lane, possessing outstanding finishing ability around the rim and terrific vision for finding open shooters when the defense collapses around him. Keeping him out of the lane will be imperative and that job will likely fall mostly to Nojel Eastern.
If Simpson does get past Purdue's first line of defense, the Boilermakers' rotations will have to be much better than they've been recently. Purdue has been a step slow on the outside during its three-game losing streak, giving up 35 3-pointers as a result. Its opponents have shot 45.4% from beyond the arc in those games and Michigan can absolutely extend that trend if the Boilermakers give Simpson and the rest of the Wolverines' guards too many opportunities.
On offense, the plan for Purdue is simple: run everything through Trevion Williams. Williams had a career night against the Wolverines when these teams met in January, scoring 36 points and grabbing 20 rebounds to keep the Boilermakers in the game. Michigan steadfastly refused to send an extra defender at him that entire game, so he kept shooting nearly every time he touched the ball, to great effect. This time, it's likely that the Wolverines will send at least a partial double-team at Williams and he will have to use his passing skills to find open shooters. Thankfully for Purdue, Williams is one of the best passing big men in the country and he could feast in that scenario, as well. Either way, Purdue will have to be smart with its post feeds and make as many of them as possible.
The Boilermakers will get an emotional lift from the celebration of Robbie Hummel at halftime (Hummel was inducted in to the Purdue Athletics Hall of Fame on Friday) and should come out with plenty of energy. Riding that wave as long as possible will be key against a Michigan team that comes in with a renewed sense of confidence following a mid-season slump. This is crunch time for the Boilers; from now on, they're playing for their NCAA Tournament lives every time they step on the floor.