Purdue’s road to Big Ten title travels through Penn State
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State is trying to play its way into any kind of postseason experience. No. 14 Purdue’s goals and objectives are much higher.
Obviously, there is plenty at stake Tuesday night when the Boilermakers (22-5, 11-3 in the Big Ten) and Nittany Lions (14-13, 6-8) play at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center in a rematch of a Jan. 21 game that Purdue won 77-52 in West Lafayette, Ind.
There’s certainly a sense of urgency for a young Penn State team that is 3-6 since beating Minnesota 52-50 on Jan. 14 in State College. The Nittany Lions have had a week off since an 82-66 loss this past Tuesday at Nebraska.
“The game at Nebraska definitely was another learning lesson for us,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “Hopefully, we can carry that over through what has been seven days off. We want to be more consistent and just that much better down the stretch.
“We looked tired in the second half at Nebraska, but I don’t want to use that as an excuse. Now, we’ve got Purdue, and they are playing some pretty good basketball. It’s going to be fun for us to see what we can do.”
Purdue is positioned to win at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship for the first time since 2010, when the Boilermakers finished in a three-way tie for first place with Michigan State and Ohio State.
Purdue has not finished in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten since 1996, when it won a third consecutive unshared league title.
No. 16 Wisconsin (22-5, 11-3) currently shares first place with Purdue with two weeks remaining in the regular season. The Boilermakers have three of their final four regular-season games on the road, beginning at Penn State.
Wisconsin plays its next two on the road — at Ohio State on Thursday and at Michigan State on Sunday — before finishing with home games against Iowa on March 2 and Minnesota on March 5.
The Boilermakers play at Michigan on Saturday before hosting Indiana on Feb. 28, then ending the regular season March 4 or 5 at Northwestern.
Purdue is trying to win a Big Ten title despite losing league games to Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska — teams with a collective 20-22 record in conference play.
“We’ve kept the confidence and seen some crazy things happen in this league, and we’re still here,” said Purdue junior forward Vince Edwards, who in Saturday’s victory against Michigan State became the 50th player in school history to score 1,000 career points. He now has 1,002. “We’re right where we want to be.
“For us to be right here in first place is huge, but the focus still has to be on winning one game at a time. We know what to do to win a Big Ten championship, and we have to go and do it.”
The Boilermakers, who have won five consecutive Big Ten games for the first time since the 2010-2011 season and are 8-1 since a Jan. 12 loss at Iowa, are playing their best basketball of the season.
“We’re winning some grind-it-out games, and that is a good thing for our team when we are not shooting the ball particularly well,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “I also think that from a defensive standpoint, this is the best we have been playing.”
During Purdue’s five-game winning streak, only Maryland (72) has scored more than 64 points against the Boilermakers, and only Michigan State (42.4 percent) has shot better than 39.7 percent against Purdue.
Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan, who leads the team in scoring at 18.9 points per game, had 24 points and 15 rebounds in the Boilermakers’ 80-63 victory over Michigan State on Saturday.
Penn State shot only 31.3 percent (20 of 64) in its Jan. 21 loss in Mackey Arena.