With the regular season winding down to the last handful of games, wins are at a season-high level of importance for teams who currently find themselves on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament berth. On Wednesday night in East Lansing, a key Big Ten game has big implications for both teams, as neither team can afford a loss heading into their regular season finales.
Despite a better conference record, the Purdue Boilermakers find themselves on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament berth, whereas the Michigan State Spartans are currently projected to be safely inside the field of 68. Both teams have been playing their best basketball in the second half of the Big Ten season, and both teams will bring their A-game on Wednesday.
Both the Spartans and the Boilermakers enter their match-up on the heels of a loss, but it’s safe to argue that the Boilermakers have been the more impressive team as of late. When the team was in the midst of conference play, the Boilermakers looked to be out of contention for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Purdue started Big Ten play with a 3 – 3 record, and had some questionable losses on their non-conference resume. The Boilermakers lost to the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs and North Florida Ospreys on their home floor, in games they were projected to win.
Over a two-game span towards the end of January, the Boilermakers knocked off both the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Indiana Hoosiers, both of whom were nationally-ranked at the time. Those two wins can be seen as the turning point for the entire season for Purdue. Starting with those two wins, the Boilermakers enter Wednesday night having won eight of their past 10 games to propel themselves into the thick of things in the Big Ten standings, and on the brink of an NCAA Tournament berth. The Boilermakers are playing with a ton of confidence as the season comes to a close, and they have the look of a team that nobody would want to face come tournament time.
Wednesday night marks the only meeting between Purdue and Michigan State in the regular season, and it’s a key match-up in the Big Ten standings. Both teams are jockeying for position, and are looking to bolster their resume with another win before the Big Ten tournament.
Like Purdue, Michigan State has played their best basketball of the season in the second half. Despite losing the likes of Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, and Keith Appling, the Spartans found themselves inside the top 25 rankings to open the season. Fans would soon realize that this year’s edition of the Spartans wouldn’t be as good as years past, but they still had talent to compete.
The Spartans started conference play with a 4 – 3 record, which wasn’t an ideal start by any means. They suffered a season sweep at the hands of the Maryland Terrapins within their first five contests. After a two-point loss to Nebraska, the Spartans turned a corner and started to play confident basketball of their own.
Their streak started with a rout over the lowly Rutgers Scarlet Knights, and continued on from there. Despite a loss to the under-manned Illinois Fighting Illini, the Spartans won six of seven games to get back in the top half of the conference standings. The team has seen their winning ways hit a bit of a speed bump as of late, entering their match-up with Purdue on a two-game losing streak. The losing streak has brought into question the energy and intensity level of a key contributor, which will need to be heightened if the Spartans want any chance of making noise in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
Wednesday night marks Senior Night in East Lansing, and Michigan State will honour Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, and Keenan Wetzel for their hard work over their careers with the Spartans. Purdue will look to play the role of spoiler, which means this game will come down to the play of a select pair of individuals.
Players to Watch
On the visitor’s side of the floor, the Purdue Boilermakers will be looking for another big performance from A.J. Hammons. The 7’0’’ junior center has seen his effort and work ethic put into question this season, but there’s no denying that he has progressed into one of the more dominant big men in the conference. His upside is deniable, and will look to continue his development against the Spartans. Hammons is averaging 11.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks per game, but has seen his production increase to 16.3 points and 3.0 blocks per game over his past three games. Hammons gives Purdue a much-needed size advantage over the big men of Michigan State, and Purdue will look to exploit that as they look to stay inside the field of 68 with another important victory.
On the Michigan State sideline, the Spartans will need to get a big performance from one of their graduating seniors who has seen his work ethic and intensity brought into question over the past two games. Senior forward Branden Dawson is arguably the most important player on the floor for the Spartans, and will need to be that type of player on Wednesday night. Dawson is averaging 12.0 points and 9.6 rebounds per contest this season, and was a double-double machine to start Big Ten play. He has failed to record a double-double in his last three games, and is coming off a dismal 4-point, 2-rebound performance against Wisconsin. IN the game against the Badgers, Marvin Clark started in place of Dawson, so that may be just what Dawson needed to get back on track. If Dawson can get back on track, the Spartans will be a scary team come conference tournament time.
Both Purdue and Michigan State are working towards the common goal of making the NCAA Tournament field. The Spartans enter Wednesday in a better position, but the result Wednesday could easily change that. A win will do wonders for either team, which means this should be a game that fans keep an eye on Wednesday night.