Updated: February 3, 2014 2:55PM
When last it played, Purdue put together a much-needed win at West Virginia on Dec. 22, its most well-rounded performance of the young season and most solid result from the non-conference portion of its schedule.
Was that game indicative of how the Boilermakers (10-3) will play in the Big Ten? Nine days later, as they open conference play against No. 3 Ohio State (13-0) on Tuesday afternoon at Mackey Arena, will there be any sort of carry-over effect?
“Our mindset was good (against the Mountaineers), and we had some toughness about us, and that’s going to have to ramp up even more to give ourselves a chance against Ohio State,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said on Monday.
“Hopefully we can use it as momentum. But as a coach, when you win five, six, seven games in a row, that’s momentum. Having one really good win on the road, you want to build on that, but is that momentum? Time will tell.”
Since a disjointed trip to the Old Spice Classic, the Boilermakers have played relatively well, save for a spotty loss to Butler at the Crossroads Classic. Their loss to Washington State in Orlando was particularly troubling, but their NCAA Tournament aspirations remain intact, unlike last season, when such hopes were dim by the time conference play began.
“There’s a couple games you’d like to have back,” Painter said. “But we were able to win a couple games in the last couple minutes that we wouldn’t have won previous years. So there’s no doubt that we’ve made a stride in non-conference since last year. But we still weren’t as consistent as I felt we could’ve been; we could’ve been in a better position. But hopefully we can learn from it and be a better team, and have a better conference season than we did last year.”
A win against the Buckeyes would be a monumental step in that direction for Purdue. The Boilermakers have gone 5-3 in Big Ten openers under Painter, with last season’s 68-61 win against then-No. 11 Illinois extending their streak to four; to compete to make it five, they’ll have to play their best game yet this season.
“Everyone’s ready for it,” sophomore point guard Ronnie Johnson said of starting the conference slate. “This is what everybody’s been waiting on. Everybody knows it’s great competition. Everybody’s just ready to play, and that’s a good thing.”
For graduate transfer Sterling Carter, the game will be his first experience playing in the Big Ten. “I like to play against the best,” he said. “And playing Ohio State first is simply that — playing against the best.”
Ohio State has been stifling defensively and balanced offensively.
The Buckeyes rank third nationally in scoring defense (54.0 points), fourth in field goal percentage defense (36.4), and first in 3-point percentage defense (24.3). Senior point guard Aaron Craft — who Painter described as “a winner” and a player who “imposes his will on the game” — is well-known for his lockdown ability. But Shannon Scott, as well as Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson, also make things uncomfortable on the perimeter for opponents.
“They’re a really good defensive team as a group,” Painter said. “Obviously, Aaron Craft is one of the best defensive guards in the country, if not the best defensive guard in the country. … But it would be unfair to talk about their team defense and only talk about him.”
Smith averages 13.4 points and 5.2 rebounds; LaQuinton Ross 12.9 and 5.8; Amir Williams 9.9, 7.2 and 2.1 blocked shots; and Craft 9.5 points, 4.6 assists and 2.3 steals. In all, the Buckeyes, who have started the same lineup in all 13 of their games, have six players averaging at least 7.5 points.
“Any time you start off conference play and you’re playing one of the better teams in your league, one of the better teams in the country, it’s going to let you know where you are,” Painter said. “We’re playing a very good basketball team that’s battle-tested, been through it, they have a lot of older guys. So it’s going to be a great challenge for us. We’re going to have to be mentally and physically tough to give ourselves a chance to win.”
Around the rim: Reserve senior center Travis Carroll had missed three straight days of practice after hurting his knee. “He’s trying to do everything he can to get ready for the game,” Painter said on Monday. … Former Valparaiso standout player and assistant coach Jake Diebler is in his first season as Ohio State’s video coordinator. … Ohio State has won three straight games against Purdue — including 74-64 on Jan. 8 in West Lafayette in the teams’ only meeting last season — four of five, and five of seven. … The Boilermakers are 83-85 all-time against the Buckeyes, their only losing record against a Big Ten opponent.