The game everyone circled on their calendars back in November has finally arrived, with about as much fanfare and excitement as any game has so far this season. This afternoon, the No. 16 Ohio State Buckeyes (13-4, 6-2) travel to West Lafayette to battle the No. 6 Purdue Boilermakers (17-3, 6-3) in Mackey Arena. Matt Painter has perhaps his best team ever during his 17-year run at Purdue, with future NBA lottery pick Jaden Ivey (16.6 PPG, 5 REB) leading the charge.
The Boilermakers are No. 6 in the AP Poll. They are No. 4 in KenPom. They are No. 6 in the NET rankings. They’re averaging a tremendous 84.7 points per game, and have four players averaging at least 12 points per game. They’re also playing at home, where they are 59-10 in conference play (.855) since the beginning of the 2014-2015 season — the best home record in the Big Ten during that this period. They’ve lost three conference games so far, but is that reassurance or a sign that these men of Mackey are about to go on a long winning streak?
And while Ohio State is the clear underdog in this game on the road, they’re not going to simply roll over to a Purdue team that was all but anointed Big Ten champions before the season began. Ohio State currently sits one game out of first-place in the Big Ten, and a win at Mackey wouldn’t only help them keep pace with the big dogs at the top of the standings, it would also send a message that the Buckeyes are a true threat to win their first conference title in a decade.
Chris Holtmann has criticized his team at times this year for not being tough enough and playing with a grit, often times challenging them to play with toughness for a full 40 minutes. Too often the head coach has told us that his team was tough for one half of a game, but not the full game. On Thursday night in Minneapolis, the Buckeyes played with a nastiness and fire that we really hadn’t seen from them to this point in the season.
Competing in an arena that no Ohio State team had won in since 2015, OSU assaulted the glass from start to finish, out-rebounding Minnesota by a stunning 26 boards, 48-22. The Buckeyes yanked down a season-high 20 offensive rebounds, and scored a whopping 27 second-chance points as a result. As a unit they did not shoot the ball exceptionally well — 45.5% overall and 25.9% from three. But when a shot didn’t fall, someone was there to snag it, resetting the shot clock. Of Ohio State’s 36 missed shots, 55.5% of them were pulled down by a Buckeye to give themselves another opportunity. It wasn’t the prettiest or smoothest way to win a basketball game, but it didn’t matter.
Ohio State departed Minnesota with a 75-64 win — their first in the Barn in their last four tries. E.J. Liddell took being left off Andy Katz’s All-Big Ten team to heart, scoring 23 points, grabbing a career-high 15 rebounds and recording five assists just a few hours after Katz sent out the tweet, and Liddell just responded “Bet.” Some might say the Kat(z) poked the bear, eh?
The Buckeyes will need a whole lot more of that gritty, snarling brand of basketball if they want to knock off an elite Purdue team that does not lose at home often and likely will not lose much more at all this season. The Boilermakers are one of the deepest Big Ten teams ever, blending youthfulness and experience while also showing an impressive selflessness passing the basketball. Purdue averages 18.1 assists per game, which is tops in the B1G. Five different Boilers average 1.8 or more assists per game, and three of them average 3.0 or more — including senior center Trevion Williams.
Williams — a 6-foot-10 senior from Chicago — has been a massive thorn in Ohio State’s side pretty much since the day he put on a Purdue jersey. In three meetings versus the Buckeyes last season (two regular season wins plus a loss in the B1G Tournament), Williams averaged 19.3 points, 10 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game. Impressively enough, Williams doesn’t even start this season because 7-foot-4 sophomore Zach Edey is averaging 14.8 PPG on 70.4% shooting — the highest mark in the B1G.
Purdue outlasted Iowa on the road Thursday night 83-73 in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, with senior point guard Isaiah Thompson — who averages 6.3 PPG — leading the way with 18 points. That just goes to show how deep Purdue is; even their sixth-leading scorer has the ability to step up if need be.
Is there a clear strategy to beat a team that has no obvious flaws? Unfortunately not. Ohio State’s big men — Liddell, Zed Key, and Kyle Young — will obviously be crucial in this game. That trio will be up against Williams — who is two inches taller than all of them — and Edey, who is eight inches taller. They can’t afford to fall into foul trouble either, as that will just embolden Painter to pound the paint more and hopefully land the Buckeye bigs on the bench and restrict their flexibility on offense. Basically, Ohio State needs to defend a 7-foot-4 man without fouling and also without ceding any ground to him. Easy!
And while double-teaming Purdue’s bigs may wind up being Ohio State’s only recourse, the Boilermakers shoot a Big Ten-best 40.9% from long range. Eight — yes, eight — Boilermakers shoot 36% or better from three-point range, meaning that any double-team in the post will lead to an open shot for at the very worst, an acceptable shooter. Quite a tough code to crack.
I have not sugar-coated anything thus far, and I won’t start now. This is the toughest game on Ohio State’s schedule this season, and the Boilermakers are not coming to Columbus this year. Mackey Arena is one of the toughest places to win not just in the Big Ten, but in all of college basketball. Add in the fact that a good chunk of this Ohio State team has never played in Mackey with a crowd of 14,200 people yelling down their necks, and I don’t exactly love Ohio State’s odds here.
But two things Ohio State has right now that Purdue should be worried about are momentum and Liddell. The Buckeyes have won four of their last five games, and Thursday’s win over Minnesota was the most impressive of all of them, in my opinion. Ohio State did not out-shoot Minnesota — if they did, it wasn’t obvious. Instead, they out-willed, out-worked, and out-grinded Minnesota. The motor never clicked into a lower gear, as the Buckeyes just wanted it so much more than the Gophers. Ohio State will need that kind of unrelenting energy and rebounding today if they want to hand Purdue their fourth conference loss of the season.
Second, Liddell is playing the best basketball of his life right now. He put up a career-high 34 against Northwestern a few weeks ago, before scoring 23 and grabbing 15 rebounds this week. No longer burdened by having to play center, Liddell will not have to worry about Williams or Edey shadowing him in the post today. He will have the freedom to work all over the floor, draw double-teams, and get others involved. Keep an eye on the Liddell to Key connection especially, as Edey/Williams will likely be called on for help defense when Liddell starts to make his move inside.
With that said, I cannot pick the Buckeyes to win this game. Purdue has no clear weakness, and has the most raw talent in the conference by far. Ohio State, on the other hand, will need to play perhaps the most perfect game of the Chris Holtmann era to stun the Boilermakers at home. It’s possible the Buckeyes pull it out in Mackey — they’ve done it before — but I’m not confident it’ll happen today.
ESPN BPI: Purdue 84.8%
Time: 12:00 p.m. ET