Can Purdue get out of Big Ten trouble? Defense the key against Northwestern tonight.

Purdue should be leading the Big Ten.

That it is not, that it is on the verge of dropping out of the conference race, seems like a bad joke told by someone wearing candy stripes.

Boiler Nation is not amused.

There is no humor in a scenario that has the No. 23 Boilers 6-3 in conference play and trailing Wisconsin, Maryland and surging Northwestern.

At least Purdue can do something about that.

Northwestern (18-4, 7-2), which is ranked No. 25 and on the verge of its first-ever NCAA tourney appearance, comes to Mackey Arena tonight in a game with huge implications.

First, though, consider Purdue leads the Big Ten in scoring offense (82.7 points), scoring margin (15.9), assists (19.7), three-point percentage (41.9) and three-pointers made (211). It has made 25 three-pointers in its last two games and is shooting 50 percent be

It has one of the nation’s best players in Caleb Swanigan, the national leader in double-doubles (18 and counting). It has the Big Ten’s most imposing center in 7-2, 290-pound Isaac Haas. It has one of the conference’s most versatile players in Vincent Edwards, one of the nation’s best assist-to-turnover players in P.J. Thompson and impressive perimeter firepower from Dakota Mathias and Ryan Cline.

The Boilers are the only Big Ten team to beat No. 10 Wisconsin.

They have won at Michigan State and at Ohio State, two places where they almost never win.

And yet, it’s not enough.

Boiler Nation is not amused.

The Boilers have lost to Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, which are a combined 11-16 in conference play. Their defense is wildly inconsistent. Crunch-time offensive efficiency can disappear faster than you can say, “turnover,” which happened on three straight possessions in the closing crucial minutes at Nebraska.

Northwestern, meanwhile, keeps finding a way. It wins with the Big Ten’s second-stingiest defense, at 63.7 points allowed. It also leads the conference in three-point defense, holding opponents to 30.7 percent. It has won six straight Big Ten games, which hasn’t happened since Franklin Roosevelt was president.

Setting the pace is junior point guard Bryant McIntosh, who leads the Big Ten in assists (5.7), is second in free throw shooting (90.0 percent) and averages 12.8 points. He burned IU for 21 points and eight assists in Sunday’s Wildcat victory.

McIntosh thrives from deep state-of-Indiana roots. He helped Greensburg win a pair of Indiana state titles, and passed on scholarship offers from Purdue and a dozen more (but not Indiana or Notre Dame) to come to Northwestern. He started 30 of 32 games as a freshman, and every game since.

It was a baptism of fire that is reaping the full benefits now.

“When you throw someone in the fire like that, you learn how it’s going to be,” McIntosh said. “I played a lot of minutes. It’s been well documented. You learn how the league works and how to take care of your body for a full season. I’ve learned how to do that. The ins and outs of the grind and listening to your body.”

What specifically did he learn?

“One thing I didn’t appreciate enough is getting treatment and sleep. I’d stay up watch a movie instead of taking care of my body, doing things like getting in the cold tub or recovery booths after practice. Now, I’m very strict in the things I do, and the times I go to bed. It’s all so important. Everything plays into it. The social aspect of hanging out with friends, you have to learn how to say no to some of that.”

McIntosh benefited from working as a counselor at NBA superstar Steph Curry’s summer camp. One key topic of conversation – fine tuning the art of knowing when to pass and when to shoot.

“That’s toughest part about being a scoring point guard. You have to learn how to keep everyone involved and the times you have to look to be aggressive and score. It’s still a struggle to know when to try to take over the game and distribute.

“That’s one of the things I talked to Steph Curry about. He gave me the best advice, that when you’re aggressive, things will happen. It will happen naturally. He said be aggressive when you’re looking to score. I’m an unselfish player, so I’ll make the right play. I try to take some things from him and apply it my game.” <br>

<i> For more on college basketball follow Pete DiPrimio on Twitter at pdiprimio and on Facebook at Pete DiPrimio. </i><br>

<center> Up next </center><br>

Tip-off: Northwestern at Purdue, 8:30 tonight