Purdues last nonconference game of the season will be its most important.
The Boilermakers (9-3) have NCAA tournament aspirations. But to get there, they need a solid nonconference résumé.
That résumé is in dire need of a road or neutral site win against a respectable opponent. Todays game at West Virginia, Purdue recognizes, is the last opportunity to make the uphill battle to March Madness a little less steep.
We need a road win, senior guard Terone Johnson said after the teams home win against Maryland Eastern Shore on Tuesday. Weve definitely got to go out in West Virginia with a chip on our shoulder and try and get a win. Thats one thats going to be super-huge for us. Its a good environment. Not only that, Im sure they want to get their revenge for last year.
The Boilermakers beat the Mountaineers (7-4) 79-52 last season in West Lafayette. Both teams are similar in terms of their youth and the need for a win against a high-major program.
Purdue might be 8-0 at home, but its best win at Mackey Arena came against a Boston College team that is 4-7 and one of the worst teams in the ACC. The Boilermakers went 1-3 on neutral courts during nonconference play, including losses to then-No. 5 Oklahoma State, Washington State and Butler. Its win came against Siena, a 3-8 squad that is in the bottom third of college basketball.
All told, Purdue beat the teams it was supposed to throughout nonconference play, but it has no win that stands out. This is a chance to nab one of those and put less pressure on Big Ten play.
We have the guys and the talent to be really good, but we havent beaten anybody on our schedule thats going to help us in terms of trying to get an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament, coach Matt Painter said. You win a lot of home games, but you have to be able to go on the road, you have to be able to go to a neutral site and win some games. This West Virginia game is a huge game for us here.
Eron Harris, a member of the star-studded 2012 class in Indiana, leads the Mountaineers with 18.5 points a game. West Virginia starts five underclassmen, including Harris, and coach Bob Huggins unit is scoring 82 points a game.
West Virginia is just ahead of Purdue in Ken Pomeroys efficiency rankings, which throw together strength of schedule, offensive and defensive tempo-free statistics and include current nonconference strength of schedule.
The Boilermakers, at this stage, are 318th out of 351 teams in nonconference strength of schedule but are 84th overall in efficiency. West Virginia is 61st overall, but 238th in nonconference strength of schedule. For both teams – but more so for the Boilermakers – this is a crucial game.
It is also an opportunity for Purdue to prove it has the poise that many have questioned throughout nonconference play.
We just have a problem with playing full games, said Johnson, who leads the team with 13.5 points per game. If were able to take away those lulls and keep the highs up, but not get too high off it, then I think we can be really good.