EAST LANSING, Mich. – Purdue's going to need to win some road games eventually. The Boilermakers are 0-4 in true road matchups this season, but they are in the middle of a stretch of four consecutive road games, the program's for the first such stretch since 1959-60. Those games certainly aren't easy: at Rutgers, at Illinois, at Michigan State (all ranked) and at Indiana. That's a grueling portion of the schedule, made more difficult by the postponement of Purdue's home game against Nebraska on Tuesday because of coronavirus cases within the Cornhuskers program.
But if Purdue wants to be an NCAA Tournament team, it can't really afford to go 0-4 in this stretch. It's already lost the first two, despite playing well for stretches in both games and the Boilermakers face a difficult task tonight against a Michigan State team that seems to be figuring things out.
The 23rd-ranked Spartans were among the Big Ten favorites in the non-conference season and have a win over a down Duke team on their resume, but they lost their first three conference games, causing coach Tom Izzo to express disgust with the way his team was playing. A lot of those concerns were allayed earlier this week when Michigan State took 15th-ranked Rutgers behind the woodshed here in the Breslin Center. The Spartans out-toughed a team that prides itself on toughness, out-rebounding the Scarlet Knights by a remarkable 43-21 margin on the way to a statement 68-45 win. Even without a crowd here in East Lansing, Purdue's young players are going to need to grow up quickly in order to win in this building.
The concern for the Boilermakers is how the day off Tuesday – coach Matt Painter gave his team some rest instead of practicing once the game against Nebraska got canceled – will affect their performance tonight. Painter said his team did not respond well and practiced poorly Wednesday. Did that carry over into Thursday? Two poor practices in a row would not bode well against a Spartans team that seems to be gaining confidence.
Where Purdue could win this game is down low. Michigan State doesn't have a lot of size with Xavier Tillman, one of the country's best rebounders last season, departed for the pro ranks. Sophomore Joey Hauser is 6-foot-9 and averages 8.5 rebounds to go along with 12 points, but Trevion Williams and Zach Edey should be able to control the game in the paint if they play well. The Spartans play a relatively up-tempo style and they move the ball very well, so Purdue will have keep them off the offensive glass to limit their possessions. As Michigan State demonstrated against Rutgers, it can win a game simply by overwhelming the opposition on the glass. Purdue might be in a unique position to make that difficult, but it will take a solid effort from its bigs.
Painter talked after the loss to Illinois about the need for Purdue to turn its "bad stretches into average stretches." That's especially true tonight. The Spartans are built to take advantage of lapses, especially on defense, and will rip off a string of easy baskets in a hurry if the Boilermakers aren't disciplined. At some point, Purdue's young players need to step up and show their growth. They're inexperienced yes, but they need to limit mistakes on defense for Purdue to be an NCAA Tournament contender. Tonight would be a great time to start.