With just a handful of games remaining in the regular season, Northwestern (17-9, 5-8 Big Ten) is still looking to garner some quality wins, and the Wildcats have an opportunity to do just that Tuesday night in a matchup against the Purdue Boilermakers (20-6, 8-5) in West Lafayette.
Matt Painter's group has been solid this season overall, boasting a 12-1 non-conference record that included wins over Florida and at Pittsburgh, while the only loss was to Butler. That consistency didn't quite carry over to the conference season; Purdue has lost to Illinois and Michigan — its only losses to unranked opponents this year. The Boilermakers do, however, boast a very impressive recent win against Michigan State. Purdue's conference schedule has been just brutal: two games against Iowa (both losses), two against Maryland (one loss, with a the second game coming on Feb. 27) and two against Michigan (split).
The biggest advantage Purdue has over almost all of its opponents is its impressive team height. The Boilermakers' top six scorers are all at least 6-foot-5. It starts in the post, with A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas and standout freshman Caleb Swanigan, who combine to score nearly 35 points per game. In the lone meeting between the two teams last year, Hammons scored 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting while gathering 9 rebounds. Haas, meanwhile, scored 10 points in 11 minutes. Alex Olah struggled with the length of Purdue's bigs and went 2 for 8 from the field. He also fouled out in just 23 minutes of action.
And that all happened without Swanigan. The 6-foot-9, 260-pound former Indiana Mr. Basketball chose Purdue over Michigan State in one of the most hyped basketball recruiting decisions you'll see. Averaging 9.9 points and 8.6 rebounds per game in just a shade over 26 minutes per game, his size, strength and skill causes major problems. Rounding out the frontcourt is Rapheal Davis—who plays both forward spots—a do-it-all glue guy type of player who has the ability to score. He put up 24 in the win over Michigan State.
These four tend to overshadow the Purdue backcourt, but the Boilermakers have skill there, too. 6-foot-8 point guard Vince Edwards presents a matchup problem simply because of his size. Fellow guards P.J. Thompson and Dakota Mathias are capable three-point shooters, although not necessarily volume scorers. All three shoot over 80 percent from the foul-line. Kendall Stephens hasn't played much recently after the death of a childhood friend.
For Northwestern, this is an especially tough matchup. Olah has had major problems with the length and athleticism of Hammons and Haas, and Dererk Pardon has quieted down significantly recently after bursting onto the scene. The same even goes for the backcourt, where Edwards has the size and defensive skill to shutdown other guards. Davis can defend basically any position one through four.
To pull off the upset, which Northwestern needs to do to get to the NIT tournament, the Wildcats will need to shoot the ball particularly well from downtown to nullify the Boilermakers' decisive advantage inside. Recent surges from Scottie Lindsey and Tre Demps are very good signs for Chris Collins's team, but Aaron Falzon has hit a rough patch, and Nathan Taphorn has fallen out of the rotation completely. If Lindsey, Demps and Falzon can stretch the floor and give Bryant McIntosh room to operate and kick it out to them, Northwestern is in with a chance.
Three matchups to watch:
1. Alex Olah/ Dererk Pardon vs. AJ Hammons/ Isaac Haas
As mentioned above, this is a really tough matchup for Olah and Pardon on both ends of the floor. It's a tough matchup for any team in the nation. Pardon has the physicality and contend with the size athleticism of Purdue's bigs, but he has trouble with fouls, even in somewhat limited minutes.
On the offensive end, it may be a complete wash for Northwestern. Olah isn't made for these types of matchups, and Pardon's offensive game has swooned the last few games. He certainly has the size and skill to at least provide a presence on both ends, but it will be interesting to see how he deals with people just as big and skilled as he is. If he can play like he did at Maryland, that will be a huge boost.
2. Bryant McIntosh vs. Vince Edwards
If I say "Northwestern's going to have trouble with this 6-foot-8, 225-pounder," you probably think power forward. In this particular matchup though, it's guard Vince Edwards, who has transitioned into more of a backcourt role as a sophomore. And whether its Edwards or senior Raphael Davis who matches up with McIntosh, their length will certainly bother Northwestern's floor general. McIntosh has scored in double figures in just three of the last six games, and is struggling somewhat with his shot. Additionally, it was this type of length that Northwestern struggled with against Ohio State in the second half. Opponents are keying on McIntosh as Northwestern's only true playmaker, and teams like Purdue, who can run multiple guys at the sophomore, bother him.
Offensively, Edwards poses a threat as a decent three-point shooter (over 36 percent) and simply another big body that can crash the boards or find creases in the matchup zone. But he also has the guard skills to facilitate, including the highest assist rate on Purdue's team. His presence may compel Chris Collins to go with Scottie Lindsey at the three for much of Tuesday's game.
3. Sanjay Lumpkin vs. Caleb Swanigan
It's difficult to say how Collins will gameplan for Swanigan. He's a matchup nightmare who can put the ball on the floor and isn't afraid to step outside and shoot from behind the arc. He's a tough player to guard because of his well-rounded game and size, and the assignment of stopping him may fall on Lumpkin, who is regarded as the team's best one-on-one player and has the toughness and strength down low to at least bother Swanigan. It's not a matter of stopping him, but rather limiting him, similarly to the excellent job Lumpkin did against Malcolm Hill versus Illinois. Swanigan is clearly a different type of player than Hill though, so look for Collins to potentially relieve Lumpkin of this duty, and instead throw Gavin Skelly, or a two-big lineup with both Olah and Pardon, at the Boilermakers.