The dust seems to have settled a little from the Buckeyes' blowout loss at Illinois on Saturday, and the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth has died down a little. Grabbing their first Big Ten road victory of the season against an apparently rebuilding Purdue squad would do wonders towards calming the nerves of Buckeye fans, while another loss might set the Columbus faithful into full-on panic mode.
Robbie Hummel finally left Purdue after approximately 37 years of eligibility, and suddenly the Boilermakers find themselves with a very young and raw squad. Purdue has certainly felt some growing pains, as they sit at a Big Ten worst 7-7 overall record, although they are 1-1 in the conference.
The out of conference slate for Purdue was more than forgettable. A close season-opening loss to Bucknell is somewhat forgivable, as the Bison are probably the Patriot League's best team and should be a tough out in March. Dropping an overtime game against Vilanova, or single digit losses to Notre Dame and Xavier are all acceptable for a young team trying to find their way at the start of the season. Losing to Oregon State by 10 is less forgivable, and their embarrassing 47-44 loss against Eastern Michigan was the cherry on Purdue's garbage heap Sunday of an early season.
Things have improved a little, as Purdue managed to do what Ohio State couldn't, and beat Illinois in their opening conference contest. They followed that up by giving Michigan State all they could handle in their game's first 30 minutes before completely folding en route to a 84-61 blowout road loss. Still, playing tough with two top 25 squads after dropping a game to a bad MAC team is progress. Just how much progress Purdue has made will be evident against a wounded, but angry, Ohio State squad.
Perhaps Purdue's most important player is freshman 7-footer A.J Hammons. Hammons is second on the team in scoring at 10.1 ppg, and is the team's leading rebounder at 5.9. Like most young big men, Hammons is a raw talent who sometimes struggles with his footwork or with fouls, but he seems to be hitting a stride at the right time. He's recorded 10 blocks in the past 4 games, and has hit double figures in 5 of his last 7 games, including 20 in a losing effort against Michigan State. Purdue is not an exceptionally great rebounding squad as a team, or deep in the front court, so making sure Hammons doesn't get too comfortable will be a key for the Bucks.
Freshman Donnie Hale will also get minutes in the front court. At 6-8, he provides additional size and rebounding for Purdue (4.4 ppg 3.3 rpg). Hale isn't really a shotblocking threat, and hasn't scored more than 4 points in a game since December 1st, but will see playing time. Sophomore Jacob Lawson (6-8) fills out the rotation (3.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg). He's a slightly better shotblocker and free throw shooter than Hale.
Terone Johnson is the team's leading scorer and one of the few upperclassmen on the squad. Johnson does a little of everything for Purdue, from scoring (13.4 ppg), to rebounding impressively for a 6-2 guard (4.6 rpg), to distributing (a team leading 3.3 assists). Johnson has struggled with efficiency this year, shooting only 38% from the floor, but has improved his three point shooting from last year (31% to 35%). Johnson hasn't shot above 50% for a game since the November 21st matchup against UNC-Wilmington, and his missed shots have played a role in Purdue's team offensive woes. Johnson will need to make sure he's either scoring, or setting up easy shots for his teammates if the Boilermakers want a shot to beat Ohio State.
Senior swingman D.J Byrd is one of the team's leaders, and will also need to shoulder a big part of the offensive burden for Purdue. Expectations were high for Byrd this season, but he's also struggling to find his shot, and has only marginally increased his scoring output from last year (8.9 to 10.1 ppg). Byrd is one of the team's best rebounders, even at 6-5, and can jump passing lanes and force turnovers as well. Only shooting 37% from the floor is problematic though, and for somebody who likes to shoot threes, he isn't hitting them very often (31%).
The Johnson's, freshman Ronnie (6-0, 8.7 ppg and 3.1 apg) and sophomore Anthony (6-3, 6.3 ppg 3.7 rpg) fill out the major backcourt rotation. As part of a general trend, neither are shooting the ball particularly well, from downtown, or mid-range. Ronnie is having the slightly better season offensively, and is doing a better job at forcing turnovers, but is the substantially worse three point shooter of the two.
If the Buckeyes have to play a road game right now, this is a great matchup for them. Ohio State is a team with one dynamic scorer who struggles to find team offensive success when he is having an off night. Purdue has no single dynamic scorer right now. They aren't a horrible team defensively, and while they can hang with anybody in the Big Ten in bursts, they're probably too young to pull off the upset.
Look for Ohio State to focus on getting back to what they do best: defend the perimeter, force turnovers to get out in transition to get easy baskets, and rebound, especially over a smaller team. Ideally, you'd like Lenzelle Smith or LaQuinton Ross to step up and have a big secondary offensive game, but even if it's just Deshaun Thomas and friends, Ohio State is good enough defensively to grind out a low scoring ugly win if they have to.
Holy War. Ohio State will get a stiff challenge from Purdue, but their size and defensive ability should be more than enough to overwhelm the Boilermakers and pull out with a win. If they can't, we'll have to reevaluate everything we thought about this team. After that horrible loss, coming out and setting the tone with a win here is critical. I like Ohio State, 71-62.