One month ago, Michigan was still looking for its first conference road win of the season. The Wolverines had just lost by two at Arkansas, and a tough road trip to West Lafayette was just three days away.
The Maize and Blue played another two-point game against the Boilermakers, but this time they came out on top. Since that win at Mackey Arena, Michigan’s only losses have come at Ohio State and at Michigan State—two teams that will be vying for one seeds on selection Sunday.
Their impressive run culminated with an overtime win at Northwestern Tuesday night, which pushed the Wolverines’ conference record to 11-4. They are now tied with the Buckeyes for second place, just a game back of the Spartans.
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Purdue has won three of four and are likely to make their sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. But the loss of Kelsey Barlow—one of Purdue’s reliable ballhandlers—is a big loss.
With or without the embattled junior, the Boilermakers figure to give Michigan all it can handle. Senior Robbie Hummel is one of the Big Ten’s best scorers at 16.5 ppg and Lewis Jackson has been consistent at point guard all season.
But the Boilermakers will need their best effort, as no team has won at Crisler Arena this season.
Edge in the frontcourt: Purdue
Neither team is built on dominant frontcourt play, but I’ll give the Boilermakers the edge here.
Michigan took 38 three-point shots against Northwestern, 38! What’s even more surprising about that is the fact that NU lacks any semblance of a strong interior defense. 38 three-point attempts may be plan of attack against Michigan State, but against Northwestern?
This alone is a testament to the Wolverines’ shortcomings in the frontcourt. And while Purdue also lacks a go-to big, Robbie Hummel did just score a season-high 29 points.
So, by default..Boiler up.
Edge in the backcourt: Michigan
In that January 24 matchup in West Lafayette, Lewis Jackson completely dominated Trey Burke, scoring 17 points to his 6 while playing relentless defense.
Burke is a different player now. In fact, he’s probably Michigan’s best player. The Columbus native has scored a combined 36 points in his last two games, including 17 against Aaron Craft and the Buckeyes.
Jackson has the experience, but Burke has been playing ahead of his years for most of the season. In what will likely be the game’s most important one-on-one matchup, the freshman will come out on top.
It’s probably worth mentioning this, too: If Burke continues to play like this, he can make a run at national freshman of the year. Well, second place. But I consider Kentucky’s Anthony Davis in another category all by himself.
Key Player for Michigan: Trey Burke
If Burke can only be slightly better than he was a month ago—6 points on 3-10 shooting from the field—Michigan should handle the Boilermakers with relative ease.
The freshman doesn’t need to keep scoring at his current scorching pace. With talented shooters like Stu Douglass, Zack Novak and Matt Vogrich, Burke needs to be a distributor.
Key Player for Purdue: Robbie Hummel
Hummel had arguably his best game of the season Wednesday against Nebraska. He’ll need a similar performance against the Wolverines.
The Boilermakers have other scoring threats, but their senior leader has been carrying them all season. Hummel will be a matchup problem for the Wolverines—he’s too big for their perimeter defenders, but too quick for the likes of Jordan Morgan and Evan Smotrycz inside.
Hummel should be able to have another big night. But if he doesn’t, it could be a long day for Matt Painter’s squad.
What will happen
The Wolverines are yet to lose at home this season, and that’s not about to change on Saturday.
Hummel will get his points early, but the Wolverines have too many weapons on offense. Burke and Hardaway Jr. will continue to prove why they are one of the most dangerous scoring tandems in the Big Ten.
The Wolverines have a shot at a conference title, and they need this win to keep pace with Sparty and the Buckeyes.
Prediction: Michigan 71, Purdue 65
Chris Johnson is a sports writer for The Daily Northwestern. He is also the Michigan beat writer for bigtenorbust.com. Follow him @chrisdjohnsonn. contact: firstname.lastname@example.orgPowered by Sidelines Follow paulmbanks