Charboneau: Purdue has potential in crowded Big Ten

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Caleb Swanigan

As the Big Ten season draws a week closer, it’s not getting a whole lot easier to try to handicap how the conference season might play out.

Indiana and Wisconsin are probably still the favorites with a group of teams we really just can’t figure out at this point. It’s a large group and each team has the ability to put it all together and make a run at the conference title. At the same time, each could end up going the wrong direction and miss the NCAA Tournament.

That includes Michigan State, Michigan, Maryland, Northwestern, Minnesota, Ohio State, Illinois … you get the picture.

What we can be sure about is that Purdue will be right there all season. The Boilermakers might even be good enough to win the Big Ten, something they haven’t done since sharing the championship in 2010, its only regular-season title since 1996.

But after rallying on Saturday from a 14-point halftime deficit against No. 21 Notre Dame, it’s clear this team has what it takes to play with the best.

“Just being able to get that quality win — you don’t know how everybody is going to do during the season, so sometimes you feel like you get a quality win and it’s not the case,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said.

“With this one, you know, Notre Dame is going to be a really good team in the ACC. They’re going to play well. They’re going to be back in the tournament. So this is huge for us, but also kind of how we did it, the ability to come back in game like that versus a team like a Notre Dame that doesn’t beat themselves, that’s a huge confidence boost for us.”

The Boilermakers didn’t necessarily need a confidence boost, but it couldn’t hurt. Entering the game they had just two losses — a three-point loss at home early to now-No. 1 Villanova and a tight loss on the road to then-No. 11 Louisville.

Purdue had a chance to win both games, but in the meantime, it had been busy beating up on the lesser-talented teams on the schedule.

Then came Saturday and a marquee win over a ranked opponent. And doing it by going small in the second half and erasing the double-digit deficit in the final 20 minutes could be especially valuable as the Boilermakers get into the thick of Big Ten play.

“I feel like it helped us a lot, just that they’re a really talented team, they’re skilled and all, but that just shows our versatility as a team,” said sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan. “Being able to match up with a small team and play small ball or play with two bigs on the court. It just worked well for us tonight, so we went with it.”

It’s not that Purdue is changing the way it will win this season. With Swanigan and Isaac Haas, the Boilermakers’ size will be tough for most opponents to deal with. But when guard Vincent Edwards can rise up for 20 points, it makes Purdue tough to beat in any style of game.

“I’d just say it speaks for itself,” Edwards said. “We always know we’re a capable team, and the coaches call what they see, so I feel like our performance today showed just that and I feel like it speaks for itself.”

Cold Buckeyes

Ohio State falls solidly in that group of teams that are still hard to figure. The Buckeyes lost to Florida Atlantic earlier this season but on Saturday kept close to No. 2 UCLA for much of the game before the Bruins pulled away.

It had the Buckeyes wondering if they had taken a step in the right direction, despite the loss.

“I don’t want to say step backward,” forward Jae’Sean Tate said. “I would just say that we know we didn’t play to the best of our ability, and we’ve just got to learn from that.”

That will be the key for a team that has now lost three of its last five but should get two wins for a total of 10 before opening Big Ten play.

If the Buckeyes are to contend in conference, however, they’ll need to make big shots after hitting just 5 of 24 attempts from 3-point range against the Bruins.

“There were a lot of swings of momentum in this game, and we were a little bit of a roll there,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “But those are the (problems) that we sort of have to alleviate. We felt like we could run great offense against them and felt like we could get the shots that we wanted to get. But once again, our guys are struggling from the 3-point line right now.

“Quite honestly, I thought we had some phenomenal looks, so somehow, someway we’ve got to knock those shots down.”

On the right path

Northwestern continues to pile up victories, beating Dayton on Saturday for its sixth straight to improve to 9-2. There aren’t a bunch of victories over the best teams in the country, but considering the Wildcats are still looking for their first NCAA Tournament berth, every win counts.

And considering they held on after building a 55-33 lead with 10 minutes to play to win by just three, it might be a sign this team is figuring out how to be a winning team.

“In years past, this was a game where maybe we would have given up that lead in the second half,” said senior Sanjay Lumpkin. “Maybe we wouldn’t have won that game, made those tough plays. A lot of guys stepped up. It’s great to see that growth.”

That growth will be interesting to see in Big Ten play and it might be just enough to end Northwestern’s March Madness drought.

Twitter @mattcharboneau