When No. 5 Purdue started the season 22-1, the only team that could claim to have beaten the Boilermakers was Rutgers.
Both Purdue and Rutgers proceeded to stumble through the month of February, raising questions about two previously stellar teams.
The top-seeded Boilermakers and ninth-seeded Scarlet Knights will stage a rematch in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals on Friday afternoon in Chicago, with each side eyeing a win to further their goals.
Purdue (26-5) handily earned the Big Ten’s No. 1 seed with a 15-5 league record, but a stretch of four losses in six games during February put a scare into its fans. Many bracket analysts have dropped the Boilermakers, once a candidate for the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, to a No. 2 seed in their projections.
“You just want to put your best foot forward. … You’re playing to beat the guy in front of you,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said this week. “Don’t overthink it, like, ‘OK, you’re playing for a No. 1 seed, you’re playing for a No. 2 seed.’ Don’t overthink it. It’s hard enough the way it is.”
The Boilermakers rely on national player of the year candidate Zach Edey, the 7-foot-4 center who ranks eighth in the country in scoring (21.9 points per game), second in rebounding (12.8 per game) and tied for first in double-doubles (23). But they’ve also received remarkable seasons from freshman guards Fletcher Loyer (11.6 ppg) and Braden Smith (10.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, team-high 4.2 assists per game).
Brandon Newman scored 19 points, Edey added 17 and Smith had 15 in Purdue’s narrow 76-71 win over Illinois on Sunday in the regular-season finale. The Boilermakers led by 21 at the half and by as many as 24 before surviving Illinois’ furious comeback.
Rutgers (19-13) lost six of its last eight games in the regular season to fall from a sure thing in the NCAA Tournament to a bubble team. The Scarlet Knights then turned things around by stymieing eighth-seeded Michigan 62-50 in their opening game of the tournament Thursday.
Rutgers’ defense forced Michigan to shoot 4-for-21 in the second half, and Cam Spencer and Derek Simpson led the offense with 18 and 13 points, respectively.
Simpson, a freshman guard, was a surprise starter as part of a four-guard lineup. He said in a postgame interview that coach Steve Pikiell “smashed” a cellphone in front of the team as a way of telling the players not to let outside opinions on their recent play distract them.
“Cellphones have been really big in mental issues and things like that. He just wants us to stay positive,” fifth-year senior Caleb McConnell added. “When you’re doing bad, everyone wants to bash you. Everyone wants to kick you while you’re down. But as soon as you are doing good and you win a game, now all of a sudden you’re the best team in America. So you just have to stay focused.”
Painter isn’t overlooking the Scarlet Knights, noting that they may have finished with a better record had they not lost two-way forward Mawot Mag to a torn ACL in February.
“He did a lot of things for them, but they still have good interchangeable pieces,” Painter said.
When Rutgers upset then-No. 1 Purdue 65-64 on Jan. 2 in West Lafayette, Ind., Spencer made the go-ahead 3-pointer with 14 seconds left. Paul Mulcahy had team highs of 16 points, eight rebounds, six assists and four steals.
Mulcahy left Thursday’s game late after being poked in the eye. Pikiell said his status for Friday was unknown.
Edey had 19 points and 11 rebounds in the teams’ first meeting.
–Field Level Media