The Nittany Lions have knocked off two ranked opponents and taken the nation’s No. 1 team to the wire since then, leaving the 14th-ranked Boilermakers little reason to be complacent in Wednesday night’s rematch in West Lafayette.
E’Twaun Moore scored a season-low four points when Purdue (15-3, 4-1 Big Ten) visited University Park, Pa., on Jan. 5, but the Boilermakers’ interior edge played a key role. JaJuan Johnson had 15 points and 15 rebounds as Purdue outrebounded the Nittany Lions 46-31 and got to the line 41 times in an 83-68 victory.
The Boilermakers cruised past visiting Iowa four days later, but their last two stops on the road haven’t gone well. Purdue shot 38.3 percent in a 70-67 loss at Minnesota on Thursday and was outrebounded 37-29 in a 68-64 defeat at West Virginia on Sunday.
“You want to put your team in some tough situations,” coach Matt Painter said of his team’s recent stretch. “We’ve given good effort, but we haven’t executed the way we’re capable down the stretch. We battled, and we’ve had some shots not go down. We have to keep taking them, and eventually they’ll fall.”
A visit from Penn State (10-7, 3-3) suddenly looks like a stiff test. The Nittany Lions followed the loss to Purdue by knocking off Michigan State and Illinois at home, then nearly kept Ohio State from ascending to No. 1 on Saturday.
But with the score tied and 13 seconds to go, Buckeyes freshman Jared Sullinger converted a three-point play to lift his team to a 69-66 win.
“We’re getting better as a team,” coach Ed DeChellis said. “We’ve gotten better from two weeks ago, we’ve gotten better from a month ago. As a coach that’s what your want to see.”
The Nittany Lions shot a season-best 55.6 percent in Columbus, but that number was even more surprising considering Talor Battle’s struggles. The Big Ten’s leading scorer made 5 of 17 shots, including 1 of 10 from 3-point range.
Penn State’s proven that it doesn’t need Battle to be great to win, though. It’s 8-3 when the senior guard scores fewer than 25 points and 2-4 when he scores 26 or more.
“They’re getting good balance. … That’s what an experienced team does,” Painter said. “They have a lot of experience on the road and in tough situations, and they’ve been able to get some very good wins.”
Battle’s biggest game against Purdue, however, was the only time Penn State has beaten the Boilermakers in his eight games in the series. He had 21 points and nine assists in a 67-64 home win Jan. 6, 2009.
Battle has averaged 11.3 points and shot 35.4 percent in the losses, and he shot 6 of 22 earlier this month.
Purdue, meanwhile, needs to get its star guard going. Moore - 32 points behind Battle for the Big Ten’s active career scoring lead - averaged 20.4 points in November and December, but he’s averaged 8.5 and shot 26.3 percent in four games this month.
Getting some production from Ryne Smith would help, too. The junior guard averaged 17.0 points in the Boilermakers’ first four conference games - hitting 18 of 27 3-pointers - but he’s totaled three points in 38 minutes in the past two losses.
Penn State is facing five straight ranked teams for the first time since Jan. 21-Feb. 4, 2006.