For the first time in the Big Ten season, Purdue is rolling.
After spending much of the conference schedule spinning their wheels and trying to string together consistent performances, the Boilermakers have seemingly turned a corner, winning three straight for the first time since November. Two of those wins were on the road, while the third was a 36-point destruction of then-No. 17 Iowa at Mackey Arena.
Tonight, the Boilers have a chance to extend their winning streak to a season-long four games when another team on a win streak, No. 13 Penn State, comes to West Lafayette. The Nittany Lions have won six in a row and are at their highest perch in the AP Top 25 poll since February 1996.
Purdue's recent resurgence has been primarily the result of better shooting. The Boilermakers came alive late in a win over Northwestern on Feb. 1, knocking down two 3-pointers in the final minute to seal a comeback victory and kickstart the win streak.
The Boilers followed that performance with a season-best 19 3s against the Hawkeyes, and then shot 50% from long distance (8 for 16) in a road triumph over rival Indiana on Saturday.
“We struggled, we took a lot of tough shots early in conference play, and I think we've gotten better with our shot selection and we're still playing really good defense, so we've found ways to win ugly,” Purdue forward Evan Boudreaux said. “We're always going to play with that defensive intensity, so when shots go in, it's only going to help us, but one of the biggest takeaways is when you're not making your shots, just finding ways to grind it out.”
Purdue's shooting surge has coincided with the rejuvenation of redshirt sophomore forward Aaron Wheeler. After shooting 36.5% from beyond the 3-point line last season, Wheeler's shooting collapsed over the first 21/2months of this season, when he made only 21.3% from deep.
He has regained some of his confidence after hitting a 3 during the barrage against Iowa and following that with a 3-for-3 performance from beyond the arc against the Hoosiers.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Wheeler said of his shooting struggles. “I was just trying to keep contributing to winning, even though I wasn't contributing too much offensively. Just trying to stay with it, knowing eventually my time would come. ... Teammates have been very supportive, coaches have been supportive, so it's good having guys that still believe in you even if you're not doing well.”
The Nittany Lions jumped nine spots in Monday's AP Poll, rising rapidly after beating Michigan State on the road. Penn State is searching for its first NCAA Tournament bid in nine years.
The Boilers have owned this series recently, winning nine straight games over tonight's visitors, but six of those wins have come by single digits and three went to overtime. This will be the first time in 53 all-time meetings between the teams that Penn State will be ranked and Purdue unranked.
The Nittany Lions are led by 6-foot-8 senior forward Lamar Stevens, who averages 17.6 points and 7 rebounds.
Purdue will likely need its outside shooting touch again tonight: Penn State holds opponents to 43.1% on 2-point attempts, 17th in the country.
vs. Penn State
When: 6:30 p.m. today
Where: Mackey Arena, West Lafayette
Records: Purdue (14-10, 7-6 Big Ten), No. 13 Penn State (18-5, 8-4)
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM