It has been a good couple of weeks for Purdue basketball. The Boilermakers' season seemed to be heading in the wrong direction after four losses in five games dropped them to 6-5 in mid-December, but since then they've turned it around.
The Boilers are winners of three in a row, including a 86-70 bashing of then-No. 25 Iowa on Thursday to move above .500 in conference play.
Now, the schedule gets more difficult. Purdue travels to East Lansing to take on No. 6 Michigan State in a matchup of the last two Big Ten regular-season champions. The Spartans are winners of eight in a row and have not lost at home this season. It will be one of the toughest games of the season for Purdue (9-5, 2-1 Big Ten), which has already faced five ranked opponents.
The Spartans (13-2, 4-0) sit atop the Big Ten with No. 2 Michigan and are one of the most physical teams on the Boilermakers' schedule.
“The way they've been able to make strides this year and possibly have a better team than they had last year is just because they dominate the game in the paint, they dominate the game on the boards,” coach Matt Painter said of Michigan State.
Painter likened Michigan State's front line of Nick Ward, Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman to “club bouncers,” according to Purdue center Matt Haarms. Ward, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound load in the middle, averages 16.7 points and 6.4 rebounds, while Goins pulls down a team-best 9.3 rebounds per game.
The three have helped transform the Spartans into one of the best rebounding teams in the country, with an average margin on the boards of plus-11.2, No. 8 nationally. That poses a challenge for Purdue big men Haarms, Aaron Wheeler and Evan Boudreaux.
“It's a couple enforcers,” Haarms said of the Spartans big men. “Really tough guys, they're going to hit you every single time. ... We've just gotta be ready to get hit and dish out some hits every single possession.”
With offensive rebounding a dicey proposition against Michigan State, the Boilermakers will have to make the most of their limited offensive possessions. Purdue has been excellent offensively during its three-game winning streak, averaging nearly 85 points per game and shooting better than 50 percent in two of the games.
Carsen Edwards continues to be the engine driving the Purdue offense – he ranks fourth in the country in scoring with 25.5 points per game – but other players have stepped up in recent games, especially Haarms. The 7-3 center is averaging 10 points and shooting 67 percent from the field during the win streak.
“When we've gotten in the open court, when we've gotten some possessions where we've had an advantage, our guys have been aggressive,” Painter said. “When things haven't been there, we've done a better job of running offense.
“You've gotta be able to have a balance. You can't shoot the ball as quick on the road. You have to be a little bit more patient.”
For the Boilermakers, playing on the road this season has been a completely different experience from playing at Mackey Arena. Purdue is 7-0 at home, but 0-3 on the road. The Breslin Center offers the most difficult road environment the Boilers have faced yet.
“We're gonna be ready for it,” Haarms said. “They're gonna be yelling at you, you're not gonna get any calls. We're gonna have to be focused, locked in on ourselves and bring our own energy.”
at Michigan State
Where: Breslin Center, East Lansing, Mich.
When: 9 p.m. today
Records: Purdue (9-5, 2-1 Big Ten), Michigan State (13-2, 4-0)
Radio: 1380 AM