WEST LAFAYETTE – The Big Ten schedule begins tonight and Purdue is diving in the deep end.
Undefeated Ohio State is coming to Mackey Arena this evening and it's the start of what could be a brutal stretch for the Boilermakers as they faces three of the top 20 teams in the AP Poll over the next 13 days, plus a Crossroads Classic matchup against Notre Dame on Saturday.
I've been talking all season about Purdue needing to raise its level of play when the competition gets more difficult; the performances the Boilermakers had when they let Valparaiso and Indiana State hang around will not cut it in the best conference in the country. They seemed to have figured something out in the first half against Miami (Florida) before a complete second-half collapse left them back at square one.
Tonight is Purdue's first true measuring-stick game since it lost to Clemson in the final of the Space Coast Challenge. Like the Tigers, the Buckeyes like to get up, pressure the ball and force opposing guards into mistakes. That's been a problem for Purdue this season, as it turned the ball over 21 times in the loss to Clemson and 19 times in its most recent contest against Indiana State. If it makes that many mistakes tonight against Ohio State, this game might not be particularly close. Ball-handlers Isaiah Thompson, Ethan Morton and Brandon Newman have to be deliberate in what they're doing and take care of the ball.
If Purdue is able to avoid turnovers, it should have an advantage in half-court offense. The Buckeyes lost long-time post fixture Kaleb Wesson to the NBA Draft and now do not have a player on their roster taller than 6-foot-8. Ohio State will also be without leading scorer EJ Liddell with a non-COVID illness. The Buckeyes have re-built as a guard-dominant team, but Purdue should be able to punish its smaller opponent in the paint if it can get the ball to Trevion Williams and Zach Edey. Williams is coming off a monster 30-point performance against Indiana State and the Boilermakers need him to be the same kind of force down low tonight. He'll be the best rebounder on the floor by a wide margin and Purdue is counting on him to give the Boilers extra opportunities.
Edey, meanwhile, has been as effective offensively as any big man in the country when he's on the court, but he's struggled to avoid fouls and that has limited his minutes. Part of the problem is that referees don't really know how to officiate someone who is 7-4, but Edey has done himself no favors with some herky-jerky moves in the post. Coach Matt Painter wants him to be more under control and look as though he's moving legally, which is a challenge for such a large, inexperienced player.
The problem for Edey tonight is that the Buckeyes are one of the best teams in the country at drawing fouls. They're making 21 free throws per game, No. 3 nationally, and their big guards are adept at getting into the lane. Edey has to go straight up on defense and avoid offensive fouls as much as possible or he could be relegated to a non-factor in this game.
One storyline to watch tonight is the potential return of freshman guard Jaden Ivey to the rotation. Ivey has missed the last five games with a foot injury after scoring 12 points in his first collegiate outing against Liberty. He practiced for 45 minutes Monday and an hour Tuesday and Purdue posted a video of him working out tonight on the court at Mackey. Having him back would add explosiveness to the Boiler backcourt and also give Purdue another ball-handler to handle Ohio State's pressure.
The Buckeyes, like Purdue, are coming off a less-than-impressive performance against a mid-major program – a 67-61 win over Cleveland State on Sunday. Ohio State has a win over Notre Dame in South Bend, but otherwise hasn't been tested much against top-flight competition. That is to say, the Buckeyes are still figuring things out, just like the Boilermakers are. We'll see which team is further along in its development tonight. Welcome to Big Ten basketball.