Two early road losses fail to derail No. 2 Purdue's quest for another Big Ten title

Thu, Feb 8, 2024
NCAAB News (AP)

Two early road losses fail to derail No. 2 Purdue's quest for another Big Ten title

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) - When two early road losses threatened to derail No. 2 Purdue's Big Ten championship journey, the Boilermakers charted a different course.

They dug in, drilled down and regrouped.

Now, four weeks later and a little more than halfway through the conference season, coach Matt Painter's squad again finds itself on the inside track to a regular-season title run.

"We're just focused on winning games," All-American center Zach Edey said after Sunday's 75-69 victory at then conference-leading and No. 6 Wisconsin. "Obviously, you kind of know where the standings are and who's leading the Big Ten. But our mentality is the same as it was when we were two games back of Wisconsin."

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Just win, baby.

Sure, it helps having the 7-foot-4 Edey performing as well - or better - this season than he did as last year's national player of the year. But when a team, such as Purdue, routinely carries the biggest target, it takes more than relying on America's most dominant big man to excel.

The Boilermakers (21-2, 10-2 Big Ten) learned that lesson the hard way last season with losses to Maryland, Northwestern and Rutgers, Indiana's season sweep and Penn State's late rally in the league's tourney title game. All of it preceded the most monumental stumble of all, losing to 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson in the NCAA Tournament.

Purdue's players returned this season determined to make amends.

So instead of fretting about the early season missteps at Northwestern and Nebraska, they used the losses as fuel to keep chugging along.

"If you want to win the championship you've got to take care of business at home, but you've got to at least be able to get half of them on the road," Painter said. "That was kind of what coach (Gene) Keady used to talk about - win all your home games, split them on the road, that puts you at 15-5. It's always going to put you in position (for a league title)."

Painter has relied on the same strategy to produce one of the Big Ten's strongest resumes.

Since 2009-10, only Michigan State (five) owns more conference regular-season titles than the Boilermakers (four), and Purdue has reached four of the last seven Big Ten tourney championship games, too. The Boilermakers took both titles last season, winning the regular-season crown by three games.

Naturally, they're now ahead of schedule.

Purdue enters Saturday night's rematch against the rival Hoosiers (14-9, 6-6) with a perfect 11-0 mark at home, a perfect 5-0 mark on neutral courts and a 5-2 road record in Big Ten games with only three more road trips looming.

Indiana has won three of the last four in this bitter rivalry and overcame an 18-point second-half deficit to beat Ohio State on the road Tuesday.

But one reason Purdue's destination could be different this season is because of the way its engine has been constructed.

Sophomore guards Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith returned stronger and better equipped to handle the rigors of what they hope will be a 41-game schedule.

Forward Mason Gillis, a one-time starter, opted to return for a sixth season even though it meant coming off the bench. Junior forward Caleb Furst, Indiana's 2021 Mr. Basketball, also accepted a backup role after making 21 starts last season.

Furst was replaced in the lineup by Trey Kaufman-Renn, who has given Purdue a more athletic look and another solid rebounder. And the additions of guard Lance Jones, a transfer from Southern Illinois, and forward Cameron Heide have provided more athleticism as well as scoring punch.

"We can win different ways," Jones said. "We're not always going to have a great shooting game, but as long as you stay poised and stay aggressive, attacking the rim, doing what works, we can win."

And, of course, when all else fails they can always rely on Edey, who leads the Big Ten in scoring at 23.1 points per game and rebounding at 11.7.

Sunday's victory extended Purdue's winning streak to seven straight for the third time this season. Another victory over Indiana would give it a season-best eight in a row and keep the Boilermakers ranked among the top five for a 30th consecutive week - easily the longest active streak in Division I.

But everyone on campus knows this season will be judged by only one measure - can Purdue finally reach the Final Four and win a national championship?

"Everyone's goal is to win, no one's looking for numbers," Loyer said after last month's 87-66 victory at Indiana. "Obviously, Zach diving on the floor, I think that's why he's the national player of the year."

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