COLUMBUS, Ohio – Tonight is a "prove it" night for Purdue.
The Boilermakers have undoubtedly made significant strides in recent weeks and their young players have grown up faster than many predicted. That has resulted in an ascendance into the top four of the Big Ten standings and an almost certain spot in the NCAA Tournament if the season ended today.
The reality, however, is more complicated. Yes, the Boilermakers are obviously much better now than they were when they blew a 20-point lead to Miami, for example, but the question before them right now is how many of their recent victories are due to that improvement and how many of them were due to simply playing a string of teams that are in the lower half of the conference standings. Yes, the Big Ten is the toughest league in the country and there are very few nights off in conference play, but Purdue hasn't beaten the cream of the crop in the conference. Only one of its five Big Ten wins is against a team currently in the top half of the standings and that calls into question how good this team really is.
That one Big Ten win against an ostensibly top-tier league opponent was more than a month ago against the same Ohio State team the Boilermakers are playing tonight. Well, it wasn't the exact same Buckeye team because OSU was without second-leading scorer E.J. Liddell that night. Liddell is back tonight and is coming off a game against Illinois on Saturday in which he scored 26 points, a career-high. That brings us back to the "prove it" nature of this game for Purdue. Are the Boilermakers already good enough to beat some of the best teams in the Big Ten or are they closer to the middle of the pack, a likely tournament team, but probably not a group in position to make a deep run? We won't learn the answer to that question definitively tonight, but this matchup will be a significant data point in that conversation.
Even with Liddell back, the Buckeyes are still not at full strength tonight. Senior point guard C.J. Walker, who scores 8.7 points per contest and leads Ohio State with 4.2 assists per game, is out as he deals with a hand injury that has bothered him all season. That drops the ceiling on the Buckeyes' offense a little bit, but they are still dangerous. Ohio State excels at getting to the foul line, ranking No. 11 in the country in free throws made, and Liddell is a key piece of that, averaging 4.9 attempts. The Boilermakers, especially their big men, have had trouble staying out of foul trouble this year and they will have to defend without fouling to have success against Ohio State.
If Purdue's big men, particularly Trevion Williams, can avoid foul trouble, they could have big games. Williams was terrific in Purdue's 67-60 win over Ohio State in December, scoring 16 points, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing a career-high eight assists. The assists were important because OSU kept sending double teams at him and Williams used his elite passing skills to find open teammates. Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann intimated that his team will try some different strategies for slowing Williams down tonight, but it's fundamentally difficult for the Buckeyes because they don't have anyone with the size to deal with the Purdue center one-on-one. Could we see some zone from OSU tonight? It's certainly possible, especially with Purdue coming off a game in which it shot an abysmal 6 of 32 from 3-point range. The Boilermakers will have to make some outside shots to stop Ohio State from clogging the lane and shutting off Williams' opportunities at the rim.
The fatigue factor could also play a significant role in this matchup. Both teams are coming off quick turnarounds – two days for Ohio State and only one for the Boilermakers – so the team that better deals with some tired legs could have an edge tonight. Purdue has an advantage here because it has a somewhat deeper bench, especially with Walker out for the Buckeyes, but that doesn't mean that it will necessarily be the fresher team. This game could well turn in the second half as both teams fight against fatigue and it will be a test of both sides' mental toughness.