WEST LAFAYETTE – Purdue did not play particularly well against Northwestern on Saturday. The Boilermakers trailed most of the game against a team that came into the game 1-9 in Big Ten play and were only saved from a potentially disastrous defeat by a game-ending 11-0 run that erased an eight-point deficit. That run, capped by Sasha Stefanovic's game-winning 3-pointer, gave the Boilers a much-needed road victory and sent them into a crucial three-game stretch (games against No. 17 Iowa, Indiana and 22nd-ranked Penn State in succession) with some momentum.
That stretch, which includes two home games and a road trip to Bloomington, begins tonight, when the powerful Hawkeyes visit Mackey Arena. It's a terrific opportunity for the Boilers to put together a winning streak and take down teams that will turn NCAA Selection Committee heads in March. To get that stretch off to a good start, the Boilers will have to slow down an Iowa team that comes in winners of six of its last seven games – including four wins over ranked opponents – and leading the Big Ten with 77 points per game in conference play.
Iowa features the current front-runner for Big Ten Player of the Year in 6-foot-11 center Luka Garza and most of Purdue's defensive efforts will have to focus on slowing him down (stopping him completely is likely out of the question). Garza is leading the Big Ten in scoring at 23 points per game (no other player in the conference is averaging 20) and is second in rebounding at 10.4 per contest. Although he is the center of every team's defensive gameplan, he is shooting nearly 55% from the field. The junior is a versatile player, capable of getting to good spots in the post at will and also possessing the ability to step out and knock down perimeter shots, hitting 38% from beyond the 3-point line. The closest comparison to Garza's all-around game that Purdue has faced this season is Maryland's Jalen Smith, who scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a win over the Boilers on Jan. 18. Purdue's defensive strategy against Garza is to simply make life as difficult for him as possible and try to keep him from getting easy baskets on put-backs. Doubling the post is a possibility, but Purdue has the advantage of having Matt Haarms, one of the only players in the Big Ten remotely capable of sticking with Garza one-on-one, on its roster. Sending two players at Garza is also risky, because Iowa guards Joe Wieskamp and freshman C.J. Fredrick are both double-digit scorers who hit 3-pointers at a high percentages, punishing defenders that sag off them to help on the center. Purdue's defense, which is giving up only 60.4 points per game, 11th in the country, will face one of its most difficult tests tonight.
On offense, Purdue will try to get off to a good start to get the Mackey Arena crowd into the game. The Boilermakers have sold out every game this season and the atmosphere has helped them compile a 9-2 record in West Lafayette, compared to 3-8 away from home. Iowa is only 3-3 in road games and just one of the victories during its current hot streak (over Northwestern) has come away from Carver Hawkeye Arena. One of Purdue's best weapons at home is Stefanovic, who is hitting 49.3% of his 3-pointers at Mackey and just 23.1% on the road. When he gets hot at home, the crowd becomes electric and opposing teams can be demoralized quickly. If Garza has a big game tonight, the Boilers might need an outside barrage from Stefanovic to hang in the game.
The Boilermakers have been treading water for much of the Big Ten season: they haven't yet won back-to-back games in conference play this year. They're still projected as one of the last teams in the NCAA Tournament field in the most recent bracket predictions, but at some point they have to start stringing victories together. Tonight would be a great time to get that process underway, especially with the Indiana game looming next.