WEST LAFAYETTE – The last time Purdue played at Mackey Arena, it welcomed a top 20 opponent that had won six of its previous seven games and featured a leading Big Ten Player of the Year candidate. That was No. 17 Iowa and the Boilermakers ripped the Hawkeyes apart, winning 104-68.
Tonight, the Boilers face another team that checks all of those boxes: No. 13 Penn State has won six straight and is led by 6-foot-8 forward Lamar Stevens, who is averaging 17.6 points and 7 rebounds per contest. This is a Nittany Lions team coming in with a ton of confidence after beating Michigan State on the road last week and rising nine spots in Monday's AP Poll to the program's highest spot since 1996. At Mackey Arena, however, Purdue has made a habit of making good teams look silly and the Boilers will try to do so again tonight as they look for another important victory in their quest for a sixth straight NCAA Tournament bid.
History is on Purdue's side tonight. The Boilermakers have won nine straight games in this series, though six of them have come by single digits and three have gone to overtime. Tonight's game will be the first time in 53 all-time meetings between these teams in which Penn State is ranked while Purdue is not. In the recent past, hosting ranked teams has proved little challenge for Purdue – the Boilers have won seven of their last eight games in West Lafayette against top 25 opponents, with the only loss coming Jan. 21 to an Illinois team that appears to be a singularly bad matchup for the Boilermakers.
Purdue is in the midst of its best stretch of the Big Ten season, winners of three straight for the first time since November and trying for its first four-game winning streak of the season. The biggest difference during this streak has been the Boilers' 3-point shooting. After struggling on offense for much of the season, Purdue has exploded in its last two games from beyond the arc, going a combined 27 for 50 (54%). Against Northwestern before that, the Boilers didn't play particularly well, but pulled out a victory with a pair of huge 3s in the final minute. The key for Purdue's shooting resurgence is that it has encompassed nearly the entire team. In addition to Sasha Stefanovic, who has been dangerous from deep most of the season, Evan Boudreaux, Jahaad Proctor and Aaron Wheeler have all gotten hot from the outside recently after suffering through significant cold spells or (in Boudreaux's case) struggling to get on the floor earlier in the season. Wheeler's 3-for-3 3-point shooting performance against Indiana on Saturday was a particularly welcome sight for the Boilermakers, as it was the first real sign that the redshirt sophomore is ready to break out of the baffling season-long slump in which he's found himself. Wheeler, a terrific athlete with a nose for the ball, could be a game-changing player for Purdue down the stretch if he continues to regain confidence in his jump shot.
Purdue will need its outside shooting tonight against a Penn State team that is controlling the paint as well as any in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions rank 17th in the country in opponent's 2-point shooting percentage at 43.1% and make life difficult for anyone who tries to work his way into the lane. Key to that interior defense is senior big man Mike Watkins. The 6-foot-9 Watkins is averaging 2.7 blocks, best in the Big Ten and 16th in the country, and is grabbing 7.9 rebounds per game, as well. He and Purdue's Trevion Williams, two players used to imposing their will physically down low, will likely have some terrific battles inside tonight.
This is a matchup between two teams playing their best basketball of the season and looking to take a significant step toward an NCAA Tournament bid. It seems unlikely that the Boilermakers will be able to run the Nittany Lions off the floor the way they did to Iowa, but by now anything seems possible for Purdue at Mackey.
Finally, an additional reminder to those of you hoping to watch this game on TV: tip-off is at 6:30 p.m. tonight, not the usual 7 p.m. It is the only 6:30 home tip-off of the season for the Boilers.