When the Big Ten season started this year, no one expected Michigan or Purdue to be at the top of the conference standings come late February.
Well, maybe a couple of people did.
“I’ll bet you (Michigan coach) Tommy (Amaker) thought they’d better do something – I don’t think he thought they had low expectations,” said Purdue coach Gene Keady about the unlikelihood of the Wolverines and Boilermakers being tied for the Big Ten lead. “That’s just like I’m the same way here.”
Regardless of where Michigan and No. 24 Purdue were supposed to be in the standings heading into tonight’s game, the winner of the battle will take a step toward capturing the conference title.
But for Michigan, taking that step will require a monumental effort against a Purdue team that is 13-0 on its home floor.
“The road hasn’t fared well for most teams thus far in the conference schedule,” Amaker said. “We have arguably the toughest road game in the our conference, playing at Purdue against a team that’s playing as well as anyone in our conference.”
The Wolverines aren’t the only ones concerned heading into this game, though.
Keady offered up some praise to Michigan, comparing the matchup problems that the Wolverines present to the ones that No. 4 Louisville gave the Boilermakers. Purdue upset the Cardinals, 86-84 on Nov. 30.
“I consider them a lot like Louisville. They’re a hard matchup because they have kids that are 6-foot-7, 6-foot-6, who can play inside and outside,” Keady said. “They shoot 3’s, run hard, they’re quick on (defense). We consider them a hard matchup for us.”
To counter Michigan’s quickness at the guard and forward positions, other Big Ten teams have attempted to pound the Wolverines inside, taking advantage of freshman centers Chris Hunter and Graham Brown.
Ohio State was able to do just that – one of few things the Buckeyes did well in the Wolverines’ 70-54 win on Saturday – as center Velimir Radinovic posted a team-high 19 points.
But the Boilermakers have received minimal contributions from their centers this year. Their most effective inside scorer has been 6-foot-10 power forward Chris Booker, who has averaged 10.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a game.
“I don’t think we can exploit (Michigan’s centers),” Keady said. “I’d like to, but I don’t think we can.”
While Purdue will focus on trying to find a way inside, Michigan will be concerned with shutting down Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Willie Deane, who leads Purdue at 17.4 points per game.
That effort will probably start, as has been the norm, with junior Bernard Robinson matched up man-to-man with Deane.
“I think Bernard Robinson should get great consideration for Defensive Player of the Year in our league – he has been as good as anyone when it comes to versatility,” Amaker said. “Defense has been one of the staples of our program, and we’ve talked about it since day one.”