Some fortunate scheduling could be a big reason Purdue gains a share of its first Big Ten title in 14 years even after losing one of its best players for the season.
The seventh-ranked Boilermakers can clinch a piece of that championship with a second consecutive win over a team at the bottom of the conference Saturday when they visit Penn State.
Purdue (25-4, 13-4) appeared to be reeling last week after losing forward Robbie Hummel - the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder - for the rest of the season with a torn ACL in his right knee. The team escaped with a one-point win over Minnesota in the game Hummel got hurt and played poorly in its first contest without the junior Sunday, losing 53-44 to then-No. 14 Michigan State while shooting 30.0 percent and getting outrebounded 46-20.
The Boilermakers, however, had two games remaining against the teams tied for last in the Big Ten.
They took advantage of that fortuitous schedule Wednesday, beating Indiana 74-55 to move within one-half game of first-place Ohio State while remaining tied with the Spartans for second.
“I think we’re getting used to playing without Robbie,” guard Keaton Grant said. “Robbie makes everything a lot easier. We just had to get in the flow of not playing with him.”
Purdue has a Big Ten-record 21 league championships but will claim its first since 1996 with a win over Penn State (11-18, 3-14).
“It’s something nobody can take away from you,” senior guard Chris Kramer said of the conference title after getting a season-high 18 points with six assists Wednesday.
The Boilermakers have won seven of eight against the Nittany Lions, including a 66-46 victory Jan. 31 behind Hummel’s 23 points. However, Purdue lost its last visit to Penn State - 67-64 on Jan. 6, 2009.
Purdue, winner of five straight on the road, is also looking to secure the second seed for the Big Ten tournament, which starts Thursday in Indianapolis. The Boilermakers hold the tiebreaker on Michigan State, which hosts Michigan on Sunday, and the Buckeyes have already concluded their season and own the No. 1 seed.
Another strong performance from E’Twaun Moore - the team leader with 16.9 points per game - could be just what the Boilermakers need. The junior guard had 21 points and six rebounds Wednesday after totaling 23 points on 24.0 percent shooting over the previous two contests.
The Nittany Lions are looking to conclude the season in strong fashion after putting a scare into Michigan State in a 67-65 road loss Thursday. Talor Battle failed to get a shot off before the buzzer as Penn State fell for the eighth straight time to a ranked opponent.
“It’s been a very tough year for us, and this is kind of how the games have gone, what you saw,” coach Ed DeChellis said. “But our kids have fought and played hard and continued to execute.”
Battle, who had 16 points and eight assists Thursday, has been a bright spot for Penn State. The junior guard is second in the Big Ten with 18.9 points per game and averages team highs of 4.2 assists and 5.6 rebounds. His scoring average is 9.3 points higher than the next leading scorer on the team - forward David Jackson.
Battle had 13 points against Purdue in January.