While this year’s Big Ten offers Quad 1 opportunities everywhere (of which the Michigan Wolverines have struggled to take advantage), true top-of-the-resume games are much harder to come by. With just one team ranked in the latest AP Poll, Thursday is potentially Michigan’s last shot to earn any sort of major victory this season.
Despite the conference’s bloated middle, the Purdue Boilermakers are a legitimate national power this season. Both sides of the ball have been performing well, and this team should be well on its way to another Sweet 16 (or better) finish come March, not to mention an all-but-certain Big Ten title.
A win Thursday feels basically mandatory if the Wolverines want to join them in the Tournament. Missed chances against Virginia, Kentucky, and UNC sting, but beating the country’s No. 1 team would go a long way. Out of all of the teams in the conference to be at the top, Michigan should feel very fortunate that this is the one; the Wolverines have won six of the last seven head-to-head, including beating No. 3 Purdue last season.
No. 1 Purdue Boilermakers (19-1, 8-1) vs. Michigan Wolverines (11-8, 4-3)
Date & Time: Thursday, Jan. 22, 9 p.m.
Location: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, MI
Big Ten Standings: PUR 1st, UM t-3rd
The game of their lives
Simply put, if Michigan is going to win then it needs to find a way to significantly elevate its scoring to keep up with a top-five Purdue offense. Without Jett Howard, that feels like a pretty daunting task, especially coming off a tough performance against Maryland and a dreadful showing at Minnesota, so something needs to change.
It was a different team, but the Wolverines lit up the Boilermakers at home last season on lights-out shooting, especially from deep. The Wolverines are going to have to take their chances on Thursday night and just hope that Dug McDaniel, Kobe Bufkin, and Joey Baker can find some rhythm behind the arc. Without a healthy number of threes, it is likely going to be too hard to keep pace, so hopefully some shots go down.
The Hunter Dickinson-Zach Edey battle will be the focal point on both ends, but Dickinson at least treading water on offense is a necessity. Michigan’s anchor has been somewhat absent in big games — and frankly poor against top opposing big men — so it will be interesting to see if he can pull out a vintage performance like in the past. Dickinson had 28 and 22 in the two games against Purdue last season, so he is certainly capable, but without Jett the Wolverines cannot afford a subpar effort from him.
The Boilermakers have one of the country’s best attacks and have certainly been the best in the Big Ten this year. However, this has not come from pure shooting, as they sit just sixth in twos and seventh in threes in conference play. Instead, this is a team that gets to the line often, converts its free throws, and (gulp) grabs a ton of offensive rebounds, meaning it requires a comprehensive defensive effort to stand a chance.
Everything starts with Edey, and Dickinson is obviously going to have his hands full. Juwan Howard is also going to have to deploy young Tarris Reed against him, and this is where things could get really dicey. Michigan needs to do whatever it can do to slow down Edey and limit the number of offensive rebounds, as one-shot possessions are the only way for an upset by the home team.
If there is one positive, it is that Purdue has not been exactly hot lately. After a close win over Michigan State, the Boilermakers put up under 1.00 PPP against both Minnesota and Maryland, defenses that Michigan knows first-hand are not necessarily elite. This game is not quite make-or-break for the season, but just about as close as it could be. It will take some fortune for sure, but somehow the Wolverines must find a way to finally notch a substantial win.