Surveying the Big Ten schedule prior to the season, it seemed probable that the conference’s best team would be on the floor at Mackey Arena on Tuesday night.
Few would have guessed that team would be Purdue.
The 19th-ranked Boilermakers (19-5, 10-1) look to win a 10th straight game for the first time in nearly 12 years Tuesday when they face No. 10 Michigan State, which dealt Purdue its lone Big Ten loss.
The last time the Boilermakers won 10 in a row was during the 1995-96 season, when they won 11 straight conference games on their way to their third consecutive Big Ten title.
Michigan State (20-3, 8-2) was the popular pick to win the conference in 2007-08, and the Spartans looked like a solid bet to do so Jan. 8 when they beat Purdue 78-75. In that game, coach Tom Izzo’s team shot a season-high 61.0 percent en route to its 11th straight victory.
The Boilermakers, however, haven’t lost since. They defeated then-No. 8 Wisconsin 72-67 on the road Saturday for their first win over a top 10 team since knocking off then-No. 2 Duke 78-68 on Nov. 29, 2003.
Purdue finds itself alone atop the Big Ten.
“(When) they pick you eighth or ninth in the league, it’s tough to publicly talk about winning a championship. It really is,” coach Matt Painter said.
Freshman Robbie Hummel, who had 17 points in a win over Penn State on Tuesday, scored a season-high 21 at Wisconsin and was named Big Ten player of the week.
Hummel is one of four freshmen who average at least 6.0 points for the Boilermakers. Freshman E’Twaun Moore, who leads the team with 11.2 points per game, was the player of the week immediately before Hummel.
Six of the team’s top seven scorers are freshmen or sophomores.
“Everybody still talks about us as the Baby Boilers,” said sophomore Chris Kramer, who had 12 points against the Badgers. “I think we use that as motivation, that we have something to prove still. We’re still not getting any credit for the stuff we’ve accomplished.”
Purdue has never beaten top 10 teams in back-to-back games, but will get its fifth chance to do so when it faces Michigan State.
The Spartans have won six of eight since their first meeting with the Boilermakers, but both losses were alarming ones that came against a pair of lower-tier Big Ten squads.
Michigan State allowed a season high in points in an 85-76 loss at Penn State on Feb. 2, and recorded its lowest point total in nearly 57 years in a 43-36 defeat at Iowa on Jan. 13.
Their previous low in the shot clock era came in their most recent trip to West Lafayette, a 62-38 loss to Purdue on Feb. 7, 2007.
Michigan State is coming off a 70-55 win over Northwestern on Saturday, its 18th straight home victory. Preseason Big Ten player of the year Drew Neitzel tied a season-high with 21 points, rebounding from a six-point, 2-of-10 shooting effort against the Nittany Lions.
“I just wanted to be patient and not force shots at the beginning,” Neitzel said after not taking a shot for the first 12 minutes Saturday. “But that won’t work next week at Purdue … I’ll have to be more aggressive and carry the team at times.”
Sophomore Raymar Morgan did his part to carry the Spartans earlier in the season, and he leads the team with 15.8 points per game. He’s been less of a factor lately, scoring 10 points or fewer in five of his last eight games.
Michigan State is the best rebounding team in the Big Ten (38.9 per game) and is led by Goran Suton with an 8.4 average, while Purdue is second-to-last (32.8). The Spartans outrebounded the Boilermakers 34-26 in their first meeting.