Hickey: Purdue is chasing immortality now -- but a few losses might not hurt
No Boilermaker is going to admit to it, but it’s no longer about simply winning the Big Ten title for Purdue. Certainly not when that half of the equation already appears just about in the bag.
Halfway through the Big Ten slate, Purdue is 9-1 with its lone loss coming by a single point. And while Rutgers owns that tiebreaker and is the closest team to Purdue’s tail, the Scarlet Knights could conceivably win out and still never catch the Boilers.
With the potential exception of next Saturday’s game at Indiana, Purdue will be favored every time it takes the floor the rest of the regular season. Which is what you’d expect of the team ranked No. 1 in the country.
For Purdue, the back half of the conference schedule isn’t just about clinching the title. It’s a chance to enter company with the truly elite teams in Big Ten history.
Since 1975, 11 B1G teams have entered the NCAA Tournament with 3 or fewer overall losses. Wisconsin was the most recent to do it in 2015. Only 5 teams have made it to March with just 1 loss in Big Ten play, with Ohio State being the last such squad in 2007.
Big Ten teams with 3 or fewer regular-season losses
- 2015 Wisconsin: 31-3, 16-2 Big Ten — Lost national championship game (Duke)
- 2011 Ohio State: 34-2, 16-2 — Lost in Sweet 16 (Kentucky)
- 2007 Ohio State: 27-3, 15-1 — Lost national championship game (Florida)
- 2005 Illinois: 29-1, 15-1 — Lost national championship game (North Carolina)
- 1997 Minnesota: 27-3, 16-2 — Lost in Final Four (Kentucky)
- 1993 Indiana: 28-3, 17-1 — Lost in Elite Eight (Kansas)
- 1988 Purdue: 27-3, 16-2 — Lost in Sweet 16 (Kansas State)
- 1985 Michigan: 25-3, 16-2 — Lost in Second Round (Villanova)
- 1977 Michigan: 24-3, 16-2 — Lost in Elite Eight (UNC-Charlotte)
- 1976 Indiana: 27-0, 18-0 — Won national championship
- 1975 Indiana: 29-0, 18-0 — Lost in Elite Eight (Kentucky)
One thing stands out on that list of Big Ten elites. Only one of those 11 teams actually won the national title: Indiana in 1976. And that was after failing to do so in an unbeaten regular season the previous year.
None of the 5 Big Ten teams to win national titles since then — ’79 Michigan State, ’81 Indiana, ’87 Indiana, ’89 Michigan and 2000 Michigan State — dominated the conference quite like these teams.
So if Purdue stumbles a few times down the stretch, Boiler fans shouldn’t fret. Historically speaking, things tend to work out better when that happens.
However, the current state of the Big Ten begs the question of whether any opponent is capable of making Purdue stumble down the stretch.
Purdue’s weakness difficult to detect
The Boilermakers are one of the nation’s most balanced teams, ranking 4th in offensive efficiency and 17th in defensive efficiency. Only 2 other contenders strike a similar balance — Houston (7th in OE, 3rd in DE) and Alabama (17th in OE, 5th in DE).
There’s a reason only 1 team has beaten the Boilers thus far.
National player of the year frontrunner Zach Edey hasn’t been stoppable.
Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson is the league’s third-best big man, but Edey still managed 19 points and 9 rebounds against him Thursday night. Next week’s matchup with Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis may be the first time this season Edey sees a true equal in the paint.
But not many teams have a Jackson-Davis. What Indiana might be able to do can’t easily be copied by anyone else.
Other opponents need a formula.
The Rutgers plan
The thing Rutgers did better than any Purdue opponent this season was two-fold.
Rutgers forced Purdue into turnovers on more than 20% of its possessions and kept Purdue’s offensive rebounding rate under 40%. The Scarlet Knights remain 1 of only 2 teams to pull off that statistical combination this season. West Virginia was the other, but the Boilers beat that game plan by shooting 51.1% from the field and 47.1% from 3-point range.
However, that game plan isn’t much easier to duplicate than cloning Jackson-Davis.
The Boilermakers get a lot of second-chance points because they rank 4th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. Having Edey in the middle does that for you. And since Edey rarely finds himself in foul trouble — he averages 2 per game — there are rarely windows of opportunity to beat Purdue on the glass.
But with a freshman point guard in Braden Smith, opponents can occasionally force Purdue into mistakes. Rutgers is second in the Big Ten in defensive turnover rate, so it’s unsurprising the Scarlet Knights were able to crack the code.
The other team capable of upsetting the Boilermakers is probably a surprise, though.
Northwestern is turning opponents over more than any other team in Big Ten play at 20.1% of possessions — that magic number. The Wildcats host Purdue on Super Bowl Sunday with a chance to make a major statement in front of a national audience.
A game at Wisconsin on March 2 also can’t be overlooked. Greg Gard’s team matches up well with Purdue, sweeping the series last season.
Tough tests remain on Purdue’s path to immortality. But the Boilermakers are halfway to completing one of the great seasons in Big Ten history.
And if they don’t, there’s no need to panic. History shows a few hiccups are best for Big Ten teams who achieve their immortality at the beginning of April.