After a blowout win against Iowa, Northwestern extended its winning streak to three games and seems to be getting hot at the perfect time. The ‘Cats now sit at 5-6 in Big Ten play and can move to .500 with a win over Purdue on Sunday.
What happened last time:
Northwestern and Purdue met just two weeks ago in a heartbreaking game that ended with a 58-56 loss for the 'Cats. It was a close game the whole way but senior Robbie Hummel’s baseline floater put Purdue up by two with just under a minute left. Northwestern had a chance to win but the ‘Cats couldn’t get a good shot up as John Shurna had to force up an off-balanced three and Purdue escaped with the victory.
What’s changed since then:
Not much. Northwestern only had six players available in the last meeting and they will likely have only six again on Sunday. The only question mark is sophomore JerShon Cobb, who may see the court after sitting out the past eight games.
Purdue also returns the same lineup but they are hoping for more production from senior guard Ryne Smith. Smith is averaging just over nine points per game but was held scoreless in the teams’ previous meeting. In a game where the teams are evenly matched, Smith’s scoring could make the difference between a win and a loss.
Key matchup: John Shurna vs. Robbie Hummel
Northwestern has relied heavily on Shurna all season, more than Purdue has relied on Hummel. Still, the Boilermakers need Hummel to have a big game on Sunday considering their lack of scoring options.
At first glance it appears that Hummel is becoming a better offensive player as his scoring has increased over the years. But as the other top players from Hummel’s class have departed – think E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson – the Boilermakers need Hummel to be more aggressive offensively and his shooting percentage has decreased. Most noticeably, he has struggled from behind the arc; after shooting 44.7 percent during his freshman year, Hummel is now shooting just 34.4 percent from deep. Shurna should be able to take advantage of Hummel’s struggles by giving him space and daring him to shoot. Taking Hummel out of his comfort zone will surely hurt Purdue’s offense.
When Northwestern is on offense, Shurna needs to be his typical aggressive self and have another big game. Northwestern relies on more than they should but it’s too far into the season to change that now. In Northwestern’s previous meeting with Purdue, Shurna only scored 15 points, a number that may be good for most but not enough for him. He’ll need to score over 20 points against Purdue and be the focal point of the offense to ensure Northwestern earns the road win.
What to look for:
Look for Purdue to come out with a ton of energy. Playing in front of the home crowd at Mackey Arena and badly in need of a win, the Boilermakers will not be caught off guard. ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi has Purdue as the tenth seed in his latest projections, but the Boilermakers are trending downwards putting them just as much on the tournament bubble as Northwestern.
Purdue also just came off of a tough road loss to Ohio State, losing by only three points. DJ Byrd had a huge game scoring 24 points, due in large part to hitting seven of his nine three-point attempts. Northwestern can’t give him any open looks, especially at the beginning of the game, or Byrd will get on a dangerous hot streak. If the ‘Cats can take the junior out of the game, they would significantly boost their chances.
Where we’ll stand afterwards, win or loss:
With a win against Purdue, Northwestern can begin to seriously think about the NCAA tournament. It would also help the team’s confidence and momentum as the regular season comes to a close. A loss would set the ‘Cats back, especially because when they travel to Indiana for their next game, they’ll be heavy underdogs.
Northwestern started out its Big Ten schedule playing poorly and has forced itself into a difficult spot. Nearly every game lately has been a “must-win” and Sunday’s matchup is no exception, but with the way Northwestern is playing, the ‘Cats have a serious shot at pulling off the upset and continuing down the road to the NCAA tournament.