Ranked again, No. 17 Purdue visits last-place Penn State
It was a long road back to a Top 25 ranking for Purdue, but the 17th-ranked Boilermakers re-entered the poll Monday, and they are playing like one of the nation's best teams heading into a Thursday game against Penn State in University Park, Pa.
Purdue was ranked No. 19 in late November, but a stretch of five losses in seven games dropped the Boilermakers out of the Top 25.
However, since a 77-59 loss at No. 6 Michigan State on Jan. 8, the Boilermakers (14-6, 7-2 Big Ten) have reeled off five consecutive wins, four of them by double digits. The only one that wasn't was an 84-80 overtime decision at Wisconsin on Jan. 11.
All the others have been fairly lopsided wins for Purdue, including a payback-administering home game on Sunday against the Spartans, a contest that saw the Boilermakers lead by 23 in the second half before winning 73-63.
Purdue hopes it can successfully handle life as a ranked team again when it visits the Big Ten's last-place team, Penn State (7-13, 0-9).
The Boilermakers sit in third place in the conference, 1 1/2 games behind Michigan and Michigan State.
"For us, we're not even halfway (through the Big Ten race) after nine games, so I think you have to get yourself into a race those last couple weeks of the season," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "So if we are in this type of position at that time, that would be great. But we still have so many games to play."
Purdue has one of the country's top point guards, junior Carsen Edwards, who is averaging 24.2 points per game. Lately, though, his supporting cast is making the difference.
Senior Ryan Cline is shooting 42.4 percent from 3-point range, sophomore Matt Haarms and freshman Trevion Williams are providing interior toughness on both ends in the paint, and sophomore Nojel Eastern, freshman Aaron Wheeler, senior Grady Eifert and junior Evan Boudreaux are adding shooting and defense on the perimeter.
Purdue beat Michigan State handily despite getting only 14 points from Edwards, mainly because the reserves provided 22 points in the first half.
For Penn State, the season has been a mighty struggle, though four of the past five games were close.
The Nittany Lions lost by six at Nebraska, by seven to then-No. 23 Iowa, by one at Minnesota and by four to Rutgers, but those close defeats just added to Penn State's frustration.
"I love the team's grit," coach Patrick Chambers said after the Saturday loss to the Scarlet Knights. "We're this close to breaking through. I'm more optimistic walking out of this arena than I was a week ago. We just have to clean up a few things. A couple rebounds here and there, a couple missed free throws here and there, and a couple of missed assignments on both ends."
Penn State does have one of the conference's best players, junior forward Lamar Stevens, who is averaging 18.7 points and 7.8 rebounds a game.
This is the first of two regular-season meetings between the teams. The rematch will be on Feb. 16 at Purdue.
--Field Level Media
Updated January 30, 2019