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Northwestern at Purdue: What to Watch

By Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

A mere 15 days separate Northwestern’s two games against Purdue this season. The first, a 75-60 victory, gave us arguably the best offensive basketball the Wildcats have played all season. Reggie Hearn opened the game 9-for-9 from the floor. Northwestern shot 53 percent from the field and 42 percent from three. Jared Swopshire looked more engaged and involved on the low post and perimeter than any time this season. The completeness and efficiency of that performance was a nice turnaround following a grueling 22-point loss at Michigan. Coach Bill Carmody and his players were understandably encouraged.

Over the next four games, and culminating in Wednesday night’s blowout loss against Wisconsin, Northwestern’s optimism slowly gave way to a feeling of resigned disconcertion as the offensive brilliance against Purdue was clouded by a string of ugly losses. The abominable stretch could continue Sunday in West Lafayette – anything you can draw from the first encounter doesn’t apply here. The Wildcats are not the same team they were two weeks ago.

Since they last met

Within three days of losing at Northwestern, Purdue bounced back with a nine-point win over Penn State. The Big Ten is not an easy league to survive in, and no win is to be taken for granted, opponent strength notwithstanding. But a win over the Nittany Lions isn’t the same thing as a win over, say, Ohio State, Illinois or Iowa. Penn State is the worst team in the Big Ten and one of the worst Power Six outfits in the country. In other words, without it being actually official or anything, the Boilermakers’ victory should be read with an asterisk on top – as should anyone else whose conference body of work includes a PSU win.

The Boilermakers weren’t about to celebrate their fifth Big Ten win, because the next four games weren’t all that different from the two losses (Indiana, at Northwestern) that came before it. Purdue has hit its roughest conference scheduling patch, and with the exception of that Penn State win, Matt Painter’s young squad has not met the challenges on offer. After keeping it close against Michigan State, the Boilermakers were battered in consecutive road games at Indiana and Illinois. An eight-game break leads them into Sunday’s game, where two teams enter hitting respective late-season nadirs.

Key Matchup: Alex Olah vs. A.J. Hammons 

Whenever Carmody talks about Olah – more specifically, Olah’s rebounding and dunking (or lack thereof) – a wave of confusion comes over him. He frantically gestures and speaks in short, jumbled sentences about his frustration with Olah’s reluctance on the low block. He can’t grasp why a player with such advantageous physical tools (Olah stands 7’0’’, 275 pounds) isn’t more assertive or active or forceful in the painted area. And can you blame him? Olah is enormous. Few, if any, players can match his sheer size. But Olah hasn’t learned the best way to maximize his physical gifts, to unleash his hulking frame on opposing big men, and what you see is a young but gifted player constantly dominated by more experienced forwards. That size advantage will be negated Sunday against Hammons, who is every bit as tall as Olah. He’s also a more perceptive, more aggressive and generally more skilled post operator. Olah will have his hands full defending a player of his stature, plus a devastating arsenal of shoulder shakes, head fakes and dropsteps to boot.

The other end of the floor will be just as interesting. Olah is slowly progressing through remedial low-post development, but it takes no measure of critical analysis to realize that Olah is still figuring out the most basic elements of his offensive potential. Hammons, who ranks sixth nationwide with an 8.4 block percentage, will be ready to pounce on any hesitancy or tentativeness Olah exhibits in trying to create shots on in the low post. Size-wise, this is as close to an NBA-type big man matchup as you’ll see in college hoops.

Prediction: Purdue 67, Northwestern 52

This was a mostly even matchup the first time around – Northwestern just shot it really, really well. On Sunday, with the Wildcats taking on more and more water on the injury front, the Boilermakers – behind one of the most loyal and boisterous student sections anywhere, in any sport – will get back to playing their trademark defensively-engaged Boiler hoop, work through Hammons on the low block for easy short-range buckets and control the glass for a comfortable revenge win. Purdue has four Big Ten games remaining after Sunday, and all of them present variously overwhelming propositions.

This may be the Boilermakers last chance to seal a conference win. At home, coming off an eight-day break, with the motivation of a cathartic victory to end a three-game skid and purge all the negative momentum of a thus-far-lamentable February – not to mention salvaging one last victory before a brutal stretch to finish the season – Purdue won’t miss this opportunity.