WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP)—The only major college contest between unbeaten top 10 teams Friday will be on the hardwood.
The meeting between No. 4 Purdue and No. 6 West Virginia could be the game of the day.
“The stars have lined up kind of perfectly for this matchup,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said.
Painter called West Virginia coach Bob Huggins about a possible series, and Huggins agreed to it.
“He said they wanted to start the series at home, I said that’s fine,” Huggins said. “Obviously, that game needs to be on national TV.”
ESPN stepped in and set the game for Jan. 1.
“It just worked,” Painter said. “The window worked where we could get in a game on New Year’s Day. Both parties really liked the idea of playing on that day for the national TV exposure.”
Neither coach expected both teams to have unblemished records. Purdue (12-0), of the Big Ten, and West Virginia (11-0), of the Big East, could strengthen their cases for a high NCAA-tournament seed in March with a win.
Purdue would close its nonconference slate unbeaten with a victory.
“It’s going to be an important game for both teams for a lot of reasons,” Painter said. “It depends on how each one of us does in conference play. There’s no doubt, when you look back, I think your resume gets chopped up into sections. You have your non-conference section, and the RPI of your nonconference and how you do in that area becomes part of it.”
Both teams have been tested.
Purdue trailed Iowa at halftime before rallying for a 67-56 road win on Tuesday. The Boilermakers also have a one-point win over Tennessee in the Paradise Jam and overcame a 16-point deficit in the second half to beat Alabama.
West Virginia needed a last-second basket by forward Da’Sean Butler to beat Cleveland State, beat No. 15 Mississippi 76-66, needed overtime to beat Seton Hall, then got another winner from Butler to knock off Marquette on Tuesday.
Those challenges give Huggins confidence heading into Friday’s matchup, which he expects to be at least as difficult as the previous ones.
“I don’t want to say we’re used to it, but that was a tough stretch,” Huggins said.
Purdue’s leaders are a trio of juniors. The top scorer is E’Twaun Moore, a guard who averages 16.4 points and 2.5 assists per game.
Robbie Hummel, a versatile 6-foot-8 forward, averages 14.8 points and leads the team with 6.9 rebounds per contest.
JaJuan Johnson averages 13.8 points and 6.5 rebounds. The athletic 6-foot-10 center was a first-team all-conference pick last season.
The three have led Purdue to three straight NCAA tournament berths.
“I think they’re very talented,” Huggins said. “I think they’re very well coached. As important as any of those, they’re very experienced. They can make adjustments because they’ve had those guys for so long, and they’ve been through a lot of big games, and they know how to handle it.”
Seniors Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant add defensive skill and toughness to the lineup.
Painter is most concerned about West Virginia’s size in the backcourt. Butler is a 6-foot-7, 230-pound guard who averages 16.5 points and 6.0 rebounds, and Ebanks is a 6-9 guard who averages 14 points and 8.9 rebounds.
“We haven’t really faced something like that,” Painter said. “You just don’t see 6-7 points, and 6-9 points, and guys that are 225, 230 pounds that can dribble, pass, shoot and break you down.”
Kevin Jones, a 6-8, 250-pound forward, is averaging 15.7 points and 7.6 rebounds. The Mountaineers outrebound their opponents by nearly nine per game, making the boards a point of emphasis for the Boilermakers.
“I think if we can out rebound them, we’ll be in very good shape,” Hummel said.
The game is a sellout, even though it’s during Purdue’s winter break.
“Hopefully, we can give them something to cheer about,” Painter said. “We still have to do our part. There’s nothing automatic about being at home.”