It’s no secret that Northwestern enters this game having unloaded a colossal monkey off its back.
After defeating the Michigan Wolverines at Welsh-Ryan earlier in the week, the Wildcats’ record now stands at 21-9 (10-7 Big Ten). Despite still having lost five of their last eight games, that record represents the winningest season in program history and marks the first time since the 1932-1933 season that the team has registered double-digit wins in conference play. It’s a good time to be a Northwestern basketball fan, which is not something anyone has ever really been able to say.
But now, to close the season, the Big Ten champion Purdue Boilermakers are rolling into town for not only Northwestern’s Senior Day, but also the final game in the current iteration of Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Purdue enters having won seven of its last eight contests, the first of which was a fleecing of Northwestern by a score of 80-59 in West Lafayette on Feb. 1. But with the weight of the most disgruntled fanbase in college basketball’s expectations nearly off their shoulders, the Wildcats will hopefully be able to play free and relaxed basketball in this one with a chance to pick up some momentum going into the Big Ten tournament.
Let’s take a look at the matchup as it stands today:
Purdue at a glance
Record: 24-6 (13-4 Big Ten, 5-4 on the road)
RPI: 20 (NU is 46)
KenPom: 13 (NU is 36)
Good wins (ranks from KenPom): vs. No. 25 Notre Dame (neutral), vs. No. 24 Wisconsin, @No. 50 Michigan State, vs. No. 36 Northwestern, @No. 37 Maryland, @No. 49 Indiana, vs. No. 50 Michigan State, vs. No. 49 Indiana
Bad losses: @ No. 70 Iowa, @ No. 94 Nebraska
Head coach: Matt Painter, 12th season; 262-140 with Purdue, 126-85 in Big Ten conference play; Previous D1 stops: Southern Illinois.
Players to watch
- Caleb Swanigan, sophomore forward (18.6 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 2.8 apg)
In his second season at Purdue, Swanigan has become one of the most dynamic players in the country and a bonafide swiss-army knife at forward for the Boilermakers. He is both the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, but perhaps the most frightening aspect of Swanigan’s game is his adding of a reliable three-point shot. He needs six three-point attempts in his final game to match his long-range attempts from last season (72) and is shooting 45.5 percent from deep this year, an increase of 16 percentage points from his freshman total (29.2 percent). All of this isn’t to mention he shoots 79.3 percent from the free-throw line on 6.3 attempts per game and leads the Big Ten in defensive rebounding rate (33.6 percent). He is Purdue’s most important player. Northwestern had no answer for Swanigan in the first matchup of the two teams. The sophomore forward notched 24 points, 16 rebounds and shot 5 of 7 from three.
- Vince Edwards, junior forward (11.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.2 apg)
Edwards has been a picture of consistency for Purdue over his three years. In his junior campaign, he has nearly matched his numbers from last season with slight upticks in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage and assists per game. He’s also top five in the conference in O-Rating (123.2), TO-Rate (10.4) and free-throw shooting (87.8 percent). He’s an integral cog in Purdue’s high octane and efficient offense as a threat in the post, from the outside and even as a distributor. Add him to the list of Boilermakers who killed Northwestern just over a month ago; he registered 17 points and also shot 2 of 4 from three when the teams met back in February.
- Dakota Mathias, junior guard (10.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.7 apg)
Mathias is another high-level shooter, especially coming off screens. This is where he hurt Northwestern (and especially Vic Law) the most back in February. He leads the Big Ten in both effective field goal percentage (62.9 percent) and true shooting percentage (65.5 percent), and is somehow shooting an ungodly 48.1 percent from deep on nearly 4.4 three-point attempts per game. Whoever Chris Collins chooses to stick on Mathias is going to get a serious workout chasing him around on the offensive end.
- Isaac Haas, junior center (13.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 0.7 apg)
Painter generally likes to start three guards (Mathias, Carsen Edwards and P.J. Thompson) and two forwards (Edwards and Swanigan), which leaves him with the 7-foot-2, 290 pound Haas as the first man off the bench. When paired with Swanigan, Purdue’s front-court can be absolutely devastating, especially for a team like Northwestern. He’s an outstanding rebounder on both the defensive and offensive glass and averages the second most points on the team (on 58.6 percent shooting) in just 20.1 minutes per game. Interestingly, out of the players listed, he struggled the most against Northwestern in West Lafayette, pouring in 11 points and collecting 4 rebounds on 3-9 shooting.
The Boilermakers represent a problematic matchup for Collins’ squad. This much we learned back in February.
With Purdue, it’s really a matter of picking your poison. You can go small and chase around their plethora of shooters on the perimeter (the Boilermakers are fourth in the nation and first in the Big Ten in three-point shooting) or beef up to try and bang with Matt Painter’s pair of impressive bigs, something we know Northwestern isn’t well-equipped to do. The Wildcats showed very little capacity to enact either strategy in the team’s previous matchup. They have no logical defensive answer for Swanigan’s multi-faceted offensive game and if Purdue gets out to a hot start, as it did back in February, Northwestern will have a difficult time playing from behind against a longer, smarter, more athletic and hotter team. A lot of the focus has to be on slowing down Purdue’s prolific offense, but it’s also easy to forget that the Boilermakers boast a top-20 defense in the nation in terms of defensive efficiency. Northwestern’s offense showed flashes of what we saw earlier in the season against Michigan, but the team has been lackluster on that end in the latter half of conference play, and a matchup (although at home) against the best team in the Big Ten doesn’t seem to be the optimal time to reverse this trend.
Having Scottie Lindsey back and close (you’d have to assume) to 100 percent, as well as a healthy Nate Taphorn, will assuredly make a difference in matching up with Purdue, and the Boilermakers have been drastically less dominant on the road than at home, so don’t count out a Wildcat upset. They seem to have a certain level of magic in them recently. However, Purdue feels like a significantly better team and capable of coming into Evanston and taking this one by double digits.
- KenPom prediction: Purdue 70, Northwestern 68
- My prediction: Purdue 74, Northwestern 64
Game time: 3:30 p.m. CT
TV Channel: CBS (Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, Grant Hill, Tracy Wolfson) (this is so awesome)
Online streaming: CBSsports.com
Radio: WGN 720, WNUR 89.3
Mobile: CBS Sports app
Betting line: Purdue -4