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Preview: Purdue at Northwestern

Just 3 days after their disappointing loss to Wisconsin, Northwestern returns to action tonight, hosting #6 Purdue. Tip-off is at 4:30 PM central, and the game will be on the Big Ten Network, with Wayne Larrivee and Shon Morris on the call.

We all know what's at stake for Northwestern, as the 'Cats are now 1-3 in the Big Ten and in desperate need of a marquee win. Last year NU played well against Purdue, winning at Mackey and leading for most of the game in Evanston before collapsing down the stretch due to missed free throws.

Purdue began the season a dominating 14-0, a stretch that including wins over top 10 teams Tennessee and West Virginia. But since then, the Boilers have lost consecutive games at Wisconsin and at home against Ohio State. The loss at Wisconsin wasn't really unexpected given how tough it is to win at the Kohl Center, but the loss to the Buckeyes was a big surprise, especially considering how they lost. Purdue was in control for most of the night, but collapsed down the stretch as they blew a 13 point lead with 7 minutes to go. The loss was partially due to Evan Turner taking over on offense, but Purdue's inability to handle Ohio State's pressure defense was a bigger factor.

 A breakdown of Purdue's roster and tonight's game after the jump...

Purdue will be coming into the game angry following two losses, and the angriest player on their team will be junior center JaJuan Johnson. Johnson was first team All Big Ten last year, and this year he's averaging 13 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. He was a key to Purdue's comeback win in Evanston last year, as he had a career high 7 blocks and hit the winning free throws in the final seconds. What will make Johnson so angry tonight is that he's been shut down in the Boilers' last two games, averaging just 5.5 points. Tuesday against Ohio State he got hardly any touches on offense, so you know Matt Painter and his coaching staff have been harping all week on the importance of getting Johnson more involved. Given Northwestern's inability to play interior defense, Johnson could easily go off for 30 the way Mike Tisdale did in Champaign.

As dangerous as Johnson is, he's only third on the team in scoring. Purdue's second leading scorer is 6'8" junior forward Robbie Hummel. He's averaging 16 points and 7 rebounds per game, and is coming off a career night in the loss to Ohio State, as he scored 35 points and hit 8 threes. The leading scorer for Purdue is junior guard E'Twaun Moore, who averages 17 points a game and is very consistent, having scored in double figures in 15 consecutive games. Moore is a very athletic guard who gets most of his points on drives to the basket and mid-range jumpers.

Purdue's other two starters are guards, Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant. Kramer is a defensive specialist and general pain in the ass, who usually defends the opponents' best scorer. He's an excellent athlete and is one of if not the best defender in the Big Ten.  He is a poor jump shooter, but he leads Purdue in assists and is strong enough and quick enough to sometimes to get to the basket for layups. Grant is a bit of an enigma in that his skills have declined for the second straight year, something rarely seen in college. As a sophomore, Grant averaged 11 points a game and shot an excellent 44% from 3-point range. As a junior, he fell to 8 points per game and 35% 3-point shooting, and now as a senior he averages just 6 points per game and is shooting a woeful 19% on threes. He usually takes good care of the ball, but last time out against Ohio State he had a season high 4 turnovers and looked totally lost on offense.  I watched most of that game, and he had one turnover in crunch time that was flat-out embarrassing. His confidence seems completely shot, to the point where Painter may be considering replacing him in the starting lineup.

However, it's unclear who would take his place. The Boilers really miss point guard Lewis Jackson, who has been out all season with an injury. Off the bench, their guards are sophomore Ryne Smith and freshman D.J. Byrd. Smith is a 3-point specialist who's shooting at 34% from 3 on the season. Byrd had some good games in non-conference play, but in the last 5 games has struggled to put it mildly. He's played 40 total minutes in that stretch, and has scored 2 points with 0 rebounds and 1 assist. For the season he is shooting 29% from the field and 29% from 3-point range. On a totally irrelevant note, I tuned in to Purdue's game against Iowa earlier this year and was shocked to learn that D.J. Byrd is white. I would have laid at least 5 to 1 on him being black. This was about as surprising to me as when I learned that former Northwestern guard Winston Blake was both black and not from England.

Purdue's other two bench players are freshmen Kelsey Barlow and Patrick Bade. Barlow is a turnover prone 6'5" wing player who brings athleticism and energy off the bench, while Bade is the backup center who's in there to rebound and give Johnson the occasional breather.

So as you can see, Purdue has 3 excellent offensive players and not much after that, at least on the offensive end. On the defensive end though, Purdue is one of the best in the country. They force a ton of turnovers (on just over 25% of opponent's possessions) and allow opponents to shoot just 41% from 2-point range, ranking them in the top 15 nationally in both categories. The only weakness you can point to is that opponents are shooting 36% from 3-point range, which is above the national average.

This is a matchup of desperate teams. A Northwestern loss would leave the 'Cats at 1-4 in the conference and in bad shape to get an NCAA tournament bid, while a Purdue loss would make it very very difficult for them to win the conference, as they'd likely be 3 games behind Michigan State. Unfortunately for Northwestern fans, Purdue is a better team. Johnson will likely cause huge problems if he gets touches, and Moore and Hummel are both capable of getting hot and taking over the game. Given Purdue's consistent defensive intensity, it will be tough for the 'Cats to score. However, it's not a lost cause. Here are three things the 'Cats will have to do to have a chance.

1) Force turnovers

Purdue had a lot of trouble at times with Ohio State's trapping zone defenses on Tuesday, and we know Northwestern plays a lot of 1-3-1. It will be imperative for the 'Cats to force turnovers and keep Purdue from getting the ball inside to Johnson

2) Make a lot of threes

With Johnson patrolling the paint, it will be difficult for Northwestern to score inside. Therefore, they'll need to do their damage from behind the arc. As noted above, the Boilers one vulnerability on paper is 3-point defense, so Northwestern will need to take advantage.

3) Hope Purdue takes a lot of threes

The biggest weakness for Northwestern is their interior defense, so if the Boilers can consistently get the ball inside they shouldn't have too much trouble scoring. However, teams often get  too 3-point happy against Northwestern's zone. Notre Dame fell into that trap, taking 31 threes in their loss to the 'Cats. Purdue made a similar mistake against Ohio State as they attempted 27 threes. Purdue is a decent 3-point shooting team at 32%, but it is not their strength, so the best hope for Northwestern is that Purdue falls in love with the 3-ball and forgets about their interior advantage.

While this game is winnable for Northwestern, it's going to require Purdue having an off night. Since Purdue just played against a zone defense, they'll be ready for the 1-3-1 and should be able to execute against it. Plus Purdue is just too good a team to lose 3 games in a row. I think Northwestern hangs around for a while, but in the end the Boilers pull away and win by double digits.

Purdue 64, Northwestern 53.

The early line is Purdue -6.5, which is about 3 points less than I was expecting. I wouldn't be shocked if Northwestern gets it together and pulls an upset, but it's unlikely. I hate to say it, but I think a losing streak is about to begin for the 'Cats given how tough their next 5 games are. I hope I'm wrong.

Stay tuned for Big Ten picks, and of course the game thread at game time. Also check out a preview of the game from a Purdue perspective here.