Can Purdue be caught?

Mathematically, yes.

But the reality appears far more difficult.

It would take a reversal by the Boilermakers in the last month of the regular season along with a big-time surge from a competitor, and the combination of those seems unlikely. At 10-1 in the Big Ten heading into Wednesday night’s home game against Penn State, the Boilermakers are 3 games clear of Illinois (7-4) atop the league standings, following the Fighting Illini’s home victory against pesky Nebraska on Tuesday night.

Considering Illinois still has a game remaining against Purdue — they’ll play at Mackey Arena on March 5, the final day of the regular season — maybe it can play catch-up. But even with a win against the Boilermakers then, the Illini would still need Purdue to lose twice more during its final 9 games.

Two of the other big threats to Boilermaker supremacy lost on Tuesday night, when Northwestern (6-4) fell at Iowa and Indiana (6-5) was bounced at Maryland. Perhaps it was the Hoosiers who lost the most, because they had the most to gain. Had Indiana beaten the Terrapins, then the Hoosiers would have entered their game against Purdue at Assembly Hall on Saturday down only 3 games in the loss column, with not only that matchup against their rival but also a return trip to West Lafayette on Feb. 25.

A sweep could have brought IU — theoretically — within a game of Purdue in the standings.

No longer.

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Now, Indiana and the rest of the field need significant help. Purdue has 4 remaining road games: Indiana, Northwestern, Maryland and Wisconsin, each a destination that could potentially trip the Boilermakers up. And home games against IU and Illinois could pose late-season challenges. Thus far, however, Purdue has managed those situations, having lost only once on a buzzer-beater at home to Rutgers.

Unless it falters, Purdue looks poised to extend its lead in all-time Big Ten titles, upping the total to 25.

Patrick McCaffery returns

It wasn’t a given that McCaffery would make it back on the court this season with his Iowa teammates, after the junior forward decided to step away from the game in early January to deal with his anxiety.

But about 6 minutes into the Hawkeyes’ game against Rutgers on Sunday, McCaffery hopped up after kneeling in front of the scorers’ table and walked onto the floor. In making his 1st appearance since Jan. 1, McCaffery received a huge ovation from the Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd. He rewarded them, too, by quickly hitting his 1st jumper on his way to a 9-point performance in 13 minutes off the bench.

“It was awesome,” head coach Fran McCaffery said postgame of son Patrick’s 1st shot. “I would say that I wasn’t surprised because he practiced hard (Saturday) and shot it really well and played really well. He looked like himself.

“And I think the thing that was most impressive to me was that as soon as he got it, he raised up and shot it. He didn’t think about it. He didn’t hesitate. He just pulled (up) and did the same with the other two.”

Following Iowa’s game on Jan. 1 at Penn State, Patrick McCaffery took the bold and very public step in admitting his needed time to deal with sometimes crippling anxiety and decided to step away from the team. But he stayed near his teammates, sitting on the bench during games and traveling on the road. McCaffery said he’ll go into more details about what all transpired over the past month after the season, but for now he’s focused on helping the Hawkeyes get into the NCAA Tournament.

“It was so great knowing that there were so many people checking up on me,” he said after Sunday’s win. “A bunch of guys from the Big Ten were reaching out, a bunch of players, the guys that we play against. Everybody would say something to me. I got to talk to a bunch of the coaches before the games.”

Big win, epic troll

Maryland clearly did not like Indiana’s approach on Tuesday night.

Maybe it was the Hoosiers’ confidence — which was at least somewhat warranted given IU had won 5 straight games — that rubbed the Terrapins the wrong way. Or perhaps Maryland felt Indiana was starting to focus on Purdue, which visits Assembly Hall in a gigantic game on Saturday, while overlooking the mid-week game in College Park.

Or it was what the home team felt were pregame antics by the visitors.

Whatever it was, Maryland took it all very personal. It provided extra motivation in a 66-55 win, the Terrapins’ 3rd straight victory and 4th in their past 5 games.

“Definitely felt disrespected as a team,” Maryland forward Julian Reese said after the win. “Felt like they just kind of overlooked us. Watching them warm up it was all laughing and giggling. As a team seeing that, we took that kind of personally, and we just went out there and punched them in the mouth.”

And then Maryland’s media creative team took to Twitter for an epic post-win troll, dumping gasoline on a kindling fire between the programs.

Maryland and Indiana don’t play again in the regular season — would the Terps have tweeted what they tweeted if so? — but they could match up in the Big Ten tournament, of course.

Stay tuned.