Is it too early to call Purdue's Big Ten opener against No. 11 Illinois a must win?
Not if you consider the stakes.
The Boilers enter conference play with a 6-6 record, which jeopardizes their streak of six straight NCAA tourney appearances. They need a strong Big Ten performance (as in, say, at least 10-8) to have a chance, and given the conference's firepower (six teams ranked in the top 20), the odds aren't in their favor.
The good news -- the Big Ten will provide Purdue with a bunch of chances to get signature victories, and it starts tonight against a 13-1 Illinois team followed with Saturday's trip to No. 18 Michigan State (11-3) and then a Jan. 8 home game against No. 8 Ohio State (10-2).
What are the Boiler keys to conference success? Limit the turnovers, maintain their rebounding prowess and be smart.
“For us, we have to take care of the ball,” coach Matt Painter said. “We have to be mentally and physically strong, and being aware of what we need to do as a team.”
Purdue has lost five games by eight or fewer points. Poor shooting is a big factor. The Boilers are last in the Big Ten in three-point shooting (27.1 percent), and 11th in field-goal percentage (42.0 percent) and free-throw shooting (66.0 percent).
Toss in the 160 turnovers and it's no wonder that Purdue, with just a little better play down the stretch, could have at least a couple more victories.
“At times from a mental standpoint, we get away from some of the things that helped us get to that point,” Painter said. “We talk about it all the time in practice. This is maybe the most important possession of the year and you're taking a shot you make 25 percent of the time.”
Purdue ranks third in the Big Ten in rebounding (41.4 a game) and fourth in rebounding margin (plus-8.6). That can't slip in conference play.
“(The media talks) about rebounding as a strength,” Painter said. “We'll see. Is rebounding a strength against opponents in the Big Ten? That will tell the tale for us.
“If we do those two things (take care of the ball and rebound), that will give us confidence. And if we can be more patient and execute, we'll shoot a better percentage.”
Strength will meet strength when Illinois' three-point shooting clashes with the Boilers' three-point defending.
Purdue is the Big Ten's second-best at stopping three-point shooting, holding opponents to 29.3 percent. Illinois is No. 1 in the conference, averaging 9.4 three-pointers a game.
The Boilers' success in defending the arc starts with awareness. They target a team's best three-point shooters, which can mean leaving some others open.
“We try to stay with certain guys who can shoot,” Painter said. “We try to play the percentages to the best of our ability.
“A lot of times your three-point defensive percentage can stay down if you contain the dribble. Any time somebody beats you off the dribble, your defense has to rotate, you need to help and you can be late to the shooters.”
Illinois creates problems because they have five main three-point threats: Brandon Paul (35-for-99), D.J. Richardson (32-for-99), Tyler Griffey (22-fo-50), Tracy Abrams (14-for-47) and Joseph Bertrand (13-for-28).
The key, Painter said, is simple.
“The main thing when you go against people who can score from the perimeter is you have to make it tough on them. If they make tough ones, you have to live with that.
“Don't let them get easy baskets, don't let them have layups and get to the free-throw line. Don't let them have wide-open rhythm shots. If you do, they'll score a lot of points. It's important that we know where they are at all times. Try to make them score over us and shoot out of rhythm. Once they get it going, they're tough to stop.”
Illinois' strong start under first-year coach John Groce includes a Maui Invitational championship.
“They have some older guys and they've always been a dangerous team with their weapons,” Painter said. “They play their roles. John does a good job of getting them to play together.
“They're very aggressive. They look to attack in transition. When they get it going, they can score in bunches.”