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Preview: Northwestern vs. Purdue: Can lightning strike twice?

Yesterday, Northwestern won their 20th game a season, the first time they've accomplished that feat, and tonight they will go for another first: advancing to the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament. Standing in their way are the #6 Purdue Boilermakers, who are looking to defend their conference tournament title and improve their NCAA seeding. Tip-off is at 5:30 central on the Big Ten Network. I can't find info on the announcers, but I'm really hoping it's Gus Johnson and Shon Morris like it was last night on BTN.

Although Purdue has dominated the all time series, Northwestern is actually 8-6 in the last 14 meetings, and has mostly been the better team head to head against very good Boiler teams over the past two years. In 2009, the 'Cats forced 22 Purdue turnovers in the first meeting at home, leading most of the way before choking down the stretch. In the second meeting, NU rallied in the second half for an upset win at Mackey Arena, spoiling Purdue's senior night. And this year, in case you've forgotten, this happened:

It was the biggest win of the season for Northwestern, and their first over a top 10 team at home since beating Magic Johnson and Michigan State back in the late 70's. A few silly NU fans dismissed the win as only being "technically" over a top 10 teams since it was Purdue's 3rd straight loss and knocked them out of the top 10 in the next poll. However, the Boilers immediately turned their season around and have won 12 of 13 games since, including 10 in a row after the NU loss to rise as high as #3 in the country. Unfortunately, they lost first team All-Big Ten forward Robbie Hummel for the season to an ACL injury during the 10th win, then promptly lost at home to Michigan State, a defeat that cost them the outright Big Ten title, although they still managed to share the title with Ohio State and Michigan State.

So how did Northwestern manage to pull off the upset last time?

1) Attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line. The 'Cats attempted a season low 11 threes,  and attempted 30 free throws, making 26.

2) Dominating on the glass, to the tune of a 42-23 advantage. I have no stats to back this up, but that has to be the biggest rebounding advantage for a Northwestern team in the Bill Carmody era.

3) Holding Purdue to 36% shooting, including 5 for 22 from the 3-point line.

Of those three, the rebounding edge is by far the least likely to be repeated, because it was due largely to Purdue center JaJuan Johnson being limited to 18 minutes thanks to foul trouble. Backup center is a big weakness for the Boilers, as the only option is the over-matched Patrick Bade. In fact, Bade was so ineffective that Matt Painter used a very small lineup for parts of that game, with Robbie Hummel at center along with 4 guards. With Hummel now injured, it is imperative for Purdue to keep Johnson on the court, as they are a small team even with him; without him they will have huge problems on the interior.

Since the last meeting with Northwestern, Painter has made some changes to his rotation, namely relegating Ryne Smith to the bench. To say Smith struggled a bit in Evanston is like saying the Battle of the Little Bighorn was a minor setback for General Custer. In 18 minutes, Smith had 0 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists, 0 steals, and 0 blocks, missed all 6 of his field goal attempts, committed 4 fouls, and played horrendous defense on Drew Crawford down the stretch. if you watch the above video, at around 3:10 Smith just lets Crawford go right by him for a lay-up, just awful.

So Smith is no longer playing many minutes, and instead those are going to point guard Lewis Jackson, who was out with an injury in the last meeting. He's undersized at 5'9", and isn't much of an outside shooter, but he's a solid ball-handler and distributor, and quick enough to keep opponents from driving by him at will. He's joined in the backcourt by John Hart, a sophomore who came out of nowhere against Illinois earlier this year, scoring 14 points off the bench. However, he hasn't scored in double figures since and has shot just 35% from the field, so while he is capable of getting hot, he's not exactly a guy a defense needs to key on.

Instead, Northwestern will have to find a way to slow down All-Big Ten guard E'Twaun Moore. He averages nearly 17 points a game, had 24 in Evanston, and can score either spotting up or creating his own shot off the dribble. Not only that, he has a knack for hitting big shots down the stretch. So the 'Cats will have their hands full.

Another Purdue guard to worry about is senior Keaton Grant, who really struggled for much of the season before coming on strong late. While his scoring and 3-point percentage are both down from his sophomore and junior years, he hit a clutch shot to win a game at Minnesota and hit 5 threes last time out vs Penn State for a season high 17 points. Grant is a much better shooter than his 29% from three stat line would indicate; hopefully he reverts back to his early season form.

Rounding out the guard rotation for Purdue are Chris Kramer and Kelsey Barlow. Kramer is well-known to Big Ten fans as one of the conference's top defenders, and he was recently honored with the defensive player of the year award. On offense, he's not much of a jump shooter, but he is capable of driving to the basket and scoring that way, so you can't totally ignore him. Maybe the most interesting match-up tomorrow will be Kramer on John Shurna. Painter is going with a 4-guard lineup with Hummel out, so I assume he'll put his best defender on NU's best scorer. Kramer is very strong and quick laterally, but he's giving up 5 inches, so Shurna should be able to post Kramer up like he does at 2:20 of the above video. For most of that game, Shurna was being hounded and completely shut down by Hummel, so I'm sure he'll be happy not to have to face Hummel again. As for Barlow, he's an athletic 6'5" freshman who has some promise but struggles with turnovers.

I am curious as to what defense Northwestern comes out in tonight. In the first meeting they played almost entirely match-up zone, and did a nice job of keeping Purdue on the perimeter. Of course, they were greatly aided by Johnson being on the bench for over half the game. There is no one on the 'Cats roster who can guard him one and one, so the best bet would be to double-team him in the post and force Purdue to win with outside shooting. That's not exactly an exciting alternative, but it beats Johnson dominating inside.

On offense, taking care of the ball will be key, as Northwestern turned it over 17 times in the first meeting. Purdue plays a very aggressive style of man to man defense, so the best bet would be to take advantage of Boiler defenders overplaying the passing lanes and beat them with backdoor cuts. I'd also like to see Northwestern attack the offensive glass, hopefully taking advantage of Purdue's small lineups. In his post-game press conference, Bill Carmody blamed the Conseco Field House rims for his team's poor shooting performance vs. Indiana; personally I'm not buying it;. Jump shots are going to have to fall for Northwestern to have any chance of pulling the upset.

In the last two meetings between these teams, I didn't think the 'Cats had much chance to beat Purdue. Last season, the Boilers really struggled in Evanston before escaping with a win, so you had to think they'd bounce back strong at home, yet Northwestern pulled the upset. And this year, Purdue was coming off 2 straight losses and I expected them to play angry and win easily, yet Northwestern pulled another upset. So can it happen again? As much as I'd like to hope so, I don't see it happing.

Purdue 63, Northwestern 58

I haven't seen a line yet, but I'm assuming it will be around Purdue -8. (edit, line is Purdue -8.5) The Boilers have had some trouble scoring since Hummel's been out, but they are still such a good defensive team that I expect them to grind out a victory.

See everyone later, I plan on opening up another all day game thread as the conference tournaments heat up.