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Key Matchup: Northwestern vs. Purdue

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Tomorrow morning, Northwestern basketball faces their toughest test of the young season, as they travel to West Lafayette to take on Purdue. The Boilers just opened Big Ten play with a 23 point blowout win at Michigan, and are looking pretty damn scary right now, even without Robbie Hummel (all those Purdue fans who berated the national media at every opportunity for overlooking the Boilers in their preseason rankings might have been onto something). I haven't seen a point spread yet, but in Mackey Arena with John Shurna's status uncertain, Northwestern will certainly be a double digit underdog.

Still, the 'Cats could pull off the upset if things go right, particularly if Luka Mirkovic can hold his own at center against Purdue's JaJuan Johnson.

Perhaps no player is as critical to his team's success as Johnson is for Purdue, largely because of the lack of talent behind him. Much like Northwestern does not have a competent ball-handler behind Michael Thompson and would be totally screwed if he got hurt, Purdue does not have another Big Ten caliber post player on their roster and would have huge problems on the interior without Johnson in the lineup. Many writers pegged JaJuan as a first-team All-American before the season, and he's lived up to the hype, averaging 20 points, 8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. He's very difficult to stop once he catches the ball in the post, as he has the size and athleticism to shoot mid-range jumpers, fadeaways, and hook shots over all but the tallest of interior defenders. He has even extended his range to the 3-point line this year, attempting 17 (but making just 4).

There aren't many weaknesses in Johnson's game, but he does have a tendency to fall in love with the 15 foot fadeaway jumper instead of attacking the basket. And while he has added a bit of muscle to his frame, he's still skinny by the standards of Big Ten centers, and sometimes lets himself get pushed around by opposing bigs, as this excellent article from Draft Express indicates:

With his lack of bulk, Johnson does not respond well to physicality on the block, and despite being able to shoot over virtually everyone he faces, he tends to struggle whenever someone gets into his body while shooting.
In Purdue's only loss this season vs. Richmond, this is basically what happened. The Spiders' bigs were physical with Johnson and generally kept him out of the paint, holding him to 13 points on 4 of 11 shooting.

The responsibility for slowing him down largely falls on the pasty-white shoulders of Luka Mirkovic, and that doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. Luka has struggled defensively this season against centers with less than half of Johnson's ability, and he certainly doesn't have anywhere close to Johnson's athleticism. But with the emergence of  Ryne Smith and D.J. Byrd as dangerous 3-point shooters to go along with the brilliant E'Twaun Moore, Northwestern probably won't be able to help out with double teams very often, so Luka is on his own.

The good news for Wildcat fans is that Luka has more than held his own against Johnson in the past. In last year's upset in Evanston, Luka won the battle and then some, finishing with 16 points and 10 rebounds and holding Johnson to 7 points and 2 boards in 18 foul trouble-plagued minutes. But in Purdue's win in the Big Ten tournament, the tables were turned, as Johnson had 22 points and 8 boards while Luka managed just 4 points in 14 minutes, losing his composure and committing an idiotic intentional foul in the 2nd half.

It is unreasonable to hope for Luka to post better numbers than Johnson tomorrow, but Northwestern doesn't need that to happen to win the game. Instead, Luka just needs to make Johnson work on both ends of the court. Defensively, he needs to get his body into Johnson in the post and force Johnson to beat him from 10+ feet away from the basket. Luka won't be able to shut Johnson down, but if he can keep him from attempting high percentage shots without needing a double team, that will give the 'Cats a chance to pull the upset. It's ok if Johnson gets to 20 points, as long as he does it on something like 7 of 18 shooting and isn't allowed to score at will.

But perhaps more importantly, Luka needs to contribute offensively and force Johnson to pay attention to him in the high post. If Luka is an offensive liability like he was against St. John's, then Johnson will just hang out near the basket and reject any Northwestern player who dares venture into the paint, be it on a back cut or dribble penetration. It's hard to be optimistic given his history of struggling on the road, but keep in mind that Luka was excellent the last time Northwestern traveled to Purdue, posting 6 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists off the bench to spark the Wildcats' comeback win. If I were Bill Carmody, I'd show him tape of that game to help boost his confidence.

So we'll see if Luka can hang in there. If he plays well, Northwestern has a chance. If not, this one could get ugly.